The Intersection of Deaf and Gay Identity in Young Adult Literature

I’m thrilled to announce the publication in my essay “Without a word or sound”: Enmeshing Deaf and Gay Identity in Young Adult Literature.
This essay is found in an critical volume edited by Jacob Stratman entitled Lessons in Disability: Essays on Teaching with Young Adult Literature, published by McFarland Press (November 2015).

disability

Front cover of Lessons in Disability (2015)

Although not obvious at first, queer studies and Deaf/disability studies share a solid theoretical foundation. In this essay, I discuss how two young adult novels–Andrew Smith’s Stick and Brian Sloan’s A Really Nice Prom Mess–construct gayness and deafness, focusing on how content and/or form pushes one to approach deaf and gay identity in unprecedented ways.

I argue that the concurrent literary exploration of deafness and queerness allows these works to seek alternative models of kinship that are not reliant on privileged and normative practices. By representing events in which (spoken) language and heternormativity are made strange, these young adult novels depict imagined worlds that can be read as anti-hierarchical, non-neutral, and queer. By assisting readers in considering the strangeness of normativity, these novels provide a venue where comfort and optimism triumph in moments of anguish, and where solutions are provided to counteract the pressures of normativity. This essay, ultimately, is intended to serve as a model for how poststructuralist readings can aid readers and scholars in performing reparative critiques of young adult novels with disabled and/or queer characters.

Further complicating the stakes of my readings, the young adult novels that I scrutinize depict deafness as a spectrum; these novels portray characters that blur the lines between the deaf and the hearing. Stick and Prom Mess depict characters that cannot hear through one of their ears due to either a birth defect or accident. One can situate these characters on the fringes of the constructed abled/disabled binary, thus challenging the legitimacy and usefulness of this dichotomy in the first place. These partially deaf characters will allow me to explore the contours of subjugated identities, allowing me to develop an understanding of how hierarchy and power play a role in the imagined lives of teens that are not-quite-abled, and concurrently not-quite-disabled.

I hope you enjoy this essay! If you have any comments or questions about it, I will gladly address them in this post. You can read a manuscript excerpt of my essay by clicking here. You can also purchase a copy of the book here.

Featured image courtesy of Bert Heymans. Click here for the image file.

Course Syllabus for “The Young Adult Novel” – University of Notre Dame

Here is the syllabus for a course that I designed on the Young Adult Novel. I will teach this course during the fall 2014 semester at the University of Notre Dame. I’m very excited about this course for various reasons–mostly because I finally get to teach the texts that I work with and that I love. This course is offered as an English 20XXX requirement, which is an English course for non-majors. I also managed to get the course cross-listed with the gender studies department–especially since class discussions will focus heavily on notions of sexuality and the body that are looming in YA fiction. As of now, 18 of my 19 students are seniors, and they all come from different concentrations such as marketing, biology, English, gender studies, American studies, and education

The most difficult thing about designing this course was the choice of novels to be discussed in class. I wanted to strive for a balance between male and female authors, and I also wanted students to familiarize themselves with books that either they haven’t encountered before, or books that blur the line between young adult literature and literature marketed to adults. Because of this, I feel that there is a lack of novels focused on issues of race and class, but I will certainly make sure to cover these issues during the semester.

As always, all comments and suggestions are more than welcome. You are welcome to draw inspiration from this syllabus, but please make sure to give me credit if you do so–and be sure to share your syllabus with me so I can see what you did similarly or differently! I hope you enjoy the course I’ve designed, and I will keep you posted with how everything is going as the semester unfolds.

Ellen Wittlinger’s [Parrotfish]: A Transgender Coming-Out Novel

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish

Front cover of the paperback version of Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish

What made a person male or female, anyway? The way they looked? The way they acted? The way they thought? Their hormones? Their genitals? What if some of those attributes pointed in one direction and some in the other?

– Ellen Wittlinger, Parrotfish (p. 131)

Although Julie Anne Peters’ Luna was the first young adult text to tackle the issue of transgenderism, Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish offers us a very direct and personal perspective of what it means to born in the wrong body. Unlike Luna (read my analysis of this novel by clicking here), Wittlinger’s novel is  told from the first-person perspective of the character undergoing a transition from one gender to another, and it is also centered on a female-to-male (FTM) rather than a male-to-female transition. Although the novel lacks a certain degree of credibility due to its almost cartoonish and one-dimensional portrayal of certain secondary characters, it is ultimately a text full of heart, and it complies with its goal of giving the reader insight into what it means for trans youth to come-out within contemporary society. Although the coming-out genre may be deemed tiring and overwrought by some readers, Wittlinger’s novel demonstrates how the genre needs to explore alternate coming-out narratives that are not focused solely on white gay/lesbian upper/middle class characters. I loved Luna‘s initial attempt to do this, but ability to establish a strong rapport with the trans character was limited, due to the fact that the trans character’s story was distilled through her sister’s perspective.

Parrotfish begins at the moment when Angela Katz-McNair–the novel’s protagonist–decides to become Grady. Grady chooses this name not only because of its gender neutrality, but also because it contains the word gray within it: “you know, not black, not white. Somewhere in the middle” (6). He initially comes out as a lesbian because he deemed it to be a closer and easier step toward revealing his queer self within his community. He decides to unleash Grady soon after by declaring himself a boy to his family and friends, and by performing masculinity rather than suppressing it: he cuts his own hair very short, he begins to bind his breasts with a bandage, and he begins to wear traditional male attire. The main tension with the novel is Grady’s fear of losing touch with his past self. By assuming his true gender identity, he fears that he would have to sever his relationship with his past entirely. This is an interesting contrast to Peters’ Luna, for running away from the past is not presented as an option for Grady. He wants to embody his true gender, but in doing so, he does not want to lose a connection to everything that has shaped him.

In my opinion, the most interesting parts of this novel were those that explored not only the emotional difficulties of transitioning from a female to a male gender, but also the physical difficulties of said transition. Peter’s Luna, for instance, focuses more on the emotional torment that its transgender character faces. Luna does express physical torment, especially during the scene in which the trans character, as a child, tries to cut off his penis (as shown through the protagonist’s flashback); these physical accounts, however, are rare. Given that Wittlinger’s novel is told through the perspective of the FTM transgender protagonist, I was expecting a more nuanced understanding of the physical pains of transitioning–and the novel delivers in this aspect. For instance, Grady constantly remarks on how painful it is to breathe and to engage in physical activity when his breasts are bound with tight bandages (even though he is fortunate enough to have small breasts). Grady also expresses the difficulty of determining what bathroom to use in his high school, ultimately avoiding the decision because his understanding gym teacher allows him to use her private bathroom and shower. A particularly insightful scene in the novel in terms of the physical pains of transitioning takes place when Grady explains how he feels towards menstruation while experiencing it:

now I was a boy who had just started his period and was probably bleeding all over his jockey shorts. Yeah, that was normal. Even my own body betrayed me on a regular basis. What was I supposed to do now? Crap. I could feel the cramps advancing. The gym and Ms. Unger’s bathroom were half a mile away from my locker. By the time I ran down there I’d be a mess. (59-60)

Menstruation highlights the tension that exists between Grady’s mind and his body. It also becomes an experience of active struggle for Grady, for although he is trying to be a boy, menstruation coerces his masculinity to clash vis-a-vis the femininity he is trying to suppress. For instance, when Grady is suffering from menstrual cramps, he refuses to acknowledge to them to his mother because it “seemed like an argument against what I’d been trying to prove to her” (61). Thus, even when embodying his true gender, Grady realizes that performativity is still necessary when it comes to expressing truth.

Going back to the fact that this novel is a bit unrealistic, I want to focus on Grady’s fear of not losing his entire past by embodying a different gender (prepare for major spoilers). Towards the end of the novel, most of the tensions that Grady had with other characters vanish entirely. He mends his relationship with his best friend, Eve, after she helps him avoid a cruel prank that other students were planning against him. His family, most of which showed apprehension towards his transition, rapidly become entirely accepting of him. Even the novel’s bully, the nefarious queen bee Danya, faces suspension from Grady’s high school and is ultimately humiliated by other students at the winter dance. The message is clear: to thine own self be true, and not only will everyone accept you, but your bullies will face karmic consequences for their insidious actions.

Not only does Grady’s past relationships stay intact, but his life improves in almost every aspect imaginable. This outcome may be approached my some as misguided, because it undermines the difficulties and the non-teleological struggles of being transgender. Unlike the LGB side of the spectrum, trans youths not only have to come out, but their coming-out entails performative and physical changes that inevitably invoke a contrast between the before and the after. Although I absolutely adore the positive and optimistic message that the novel presents, I can’t help but wonder if the novel is too optimistic and naive when it comes to the issues that transgender teens face. Not all transgender teens are going to be lucky enough to be accepted by every single member of their immediate family. Not all transgender teens will find love and support as easily as Grady does. Peters’ Luna, on the other hand, shows both sides of the spectrum in terms of the consequences of coming out as transgender to one’s family: some quietly accept, some have no issue with it whatsoever, and others react with outrage and at times violence.

I reiterate that I completely understand Wittlinger’s utopian depiction of a transgender future–but I question whether the novel should’ve been more realistic when considering the outcomes of this distinctive coming-out process. I’m especially anxious to know how transgender readers feel about the general approach and conclusions that this novel presents. Regardless of its shortcomings, Parrotfish is well worth a read, and it provides some excellent food for thought. I particularly recommend the novel to readers who are not really aware of the nuances of gender, especially when it comes to matters such as performativity and gender construction. Those who are aware of these nuances might find the novel a bit too obvious and didactic, despite its warm, humorous, and fast-paced nature.

You can purchase a copy of Wittlinger’s novel here.

Work Cited

Wittlinger, Ellen. Parrotfish. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. Print (Hardcover edition).

On Feelings, the Body, and Queer Grief: Sara Ahmed’s “The Cultural Politics of Emotion”

Front Cover of Sara Ahmed's The Cultural Politics of Emotion

Front Cover of Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion

I will begin by stating that Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion is a book that I was really looking forward to, mostly because it uses a multidisciplinary approach to comprehend how emotions are tied to notions such as culture and power. Even more so, the book explores how emotions, despite their apparent abstractness, are physically bound to the body and create a dichotomous split between the inside and outside world. What I thoroughly enjoyed about this read is that it really gave me a new way to think about emotions as physical manifestations that create or intensify boundaries (or the lack thereof). Ahmed truly has a gift for materializing abstract concepts in surprising ways, providing definitions for pain, hate, and love that are based purely on physical/concrete terms. The issue I had with this book, however, is that I felt that the discussion was at times scattered and too broad, ultimately making it difficult for me to establish strong connections and links across the chapters of the book. There were other times in which the discussion felt merely like a show and tell (here is an emotion, and here are some interesting things about this emotion). But all in all, this was a very thought-provoking read, and it is a book that I would like to revisit in order to better grasp its subtleties and nuances.

Ahmed’s book uses an approach that she calls ‘the sociology of emotion,’ a model that claims that emotions not only create boundaries between the inside and the outside, but that they also create a distinction between the individual and the social. Emotions tend to be categorized as very internal and individualistic processes, to the point in which what “I feel” is virtually impossible to accurately convey to others who surround me. Interestingly, Ahmed’s book is partially focused on the physical properties of emotions, including how they are tied to the body, how emotions develop and thrive thanks to their “stickiness” (their ability to unite bodies with particular signs), and the ties that exist between languages and emotions. By triangulating emotions, the body, and language, Ahmed tries to create a model that not only approaches emotions through a physical/bodily approach, but in tandem, she tries to explain how particular emotions (such as pain, shame, fear, love, and hate) affect larger phenomena such as culture, politics, and the self.

My favorite chapter within the book was the one titled “Queer Feelings,” which discusses why queer individuals are sometimes not recognized as subjects. This chapter also alludes to theories devised by Freud and Judith Butler in order to discussed what subjects can or can’t be mourned after death, and how melancholia can be converted into a powerful tool that helps ‘the queer’ to fulfill its mission to challenge the status quo. I want to briefly discuss this chapter, but before doing so, I want to share some quotes of Ahmed’s book that I found insightful and interesting. These quotes either provide insightful definitions that I would like to return to later on during my own research, or they discuss emotions in a way that hasn’t crossed my mind before.

  • “The intensity of feelings like pain recalls us to our body surfaces: pain seizes me back to my body” (26). “Pain involves the violation or transgression of the border between inside and outside, and it is through this transgression that I feel the border in the first place” (27).
  • “Hate may respond to the particular, but it tends to do so by aligning the particular with the general; ‘I hate you because you are this or that’, where the ‘this’ or ‘that’ evokes a group that the individual comes to stand for or stand in for. Hatred may also work as a form of investment; it endows a particular other with meaning or power by locating them as a member of a group, which is then imagined as a form of positive residence (that is, as residing positively in the body of the individual)” (49).
  • “The fact that the hate crime involves a perception of a group in the body of the individual does not make the violence any less real or ‘directed’; this perception has material effects insofar as it is enacted through violence. That is, hate crime works a a form of violence against groups through violence against the bodies of individuals. Violence against other may be one way in which the other’s identity is fixed or sealed; the other is forced to embody a particular identity by and for the perpetrator of the crime, and that force involves harm or injury” (55).
  • On the difference between fear and anxiety: “Anxiety becomes an approach to objects rather than, as with fear, being produced by an object’s approach. This slide between fear and anxiety is affected by the passing by of the object” (66).
  • On fear and space: “fear works to align the bodily and social space: it works to enable some bodies to inhabit and move in public space through restricting the mobility of other bodies to spaces that are enclosed or contained. Spaces extend the mobility of some bodies; their freedom to move shapes the surface of spaces, whilst spaces surface as spaces through the uneven distribution of fear which allows spaces to become territories, claimed as rights by some bodies and not others” (70).
  • On disgust: “disgust is shaped by the relation between objects. Objects come to matter within disgust reactions not simply insofar as they oppose ‘the I’, but through their contact with other objects. […] Disgust hence operates as a contact zone; it is about how things come into contact with other things” (87).
  • “Disgust, therefore, as an imperative not only to expel, but to make that very expulsion stick to some things and not others, does not always work simply to conserve that which is legitimated as a form of collective existence” (99).
  • “Shame in exposing that which has been covered demands us to re-cover, such a re-covering would be a recovery from shame. Shame consumes the subject and burns on the surface of bodies that are presented to others, a burning that exposes the exposure, and which may be visible in the form of a blush, depending on the skin of the subject, which might or might not show shame through this ‘colouring'” (104).
  • On the reciprocity of love: “love survives the absence of reciprocity in the sense that pain of not being loved in return–if the emotion ‘stays with’ the object to which it has been directed–confirms the negation that would follow from the loss of the object. Even though love is a demand for reciprocity, it is also an emotion that lives with the failure of that demand often through an intensification of its affect (so, if you do not love me back, I may love you more as the pain of that non-loving is a sign of what it means not to have this love)” (130).

Since I am interested in queer theory and LGBTQ literature, I think it comes as no surprise that my favorite chapter of this book was the one on “Queer Feelings,”  in which Ahmed focuses her discussion on a bodily approach to heteronormativity, queerness, and grief. She approaches all of these by centering them on the notions of comfort and discomfort. According to Ahmed, comfort can either be approached as the complete integration of the self with an external object, or the seamless integration of a body with an exterior space. Ahmed thus approaches heteronormativity as a public comfort because it allows certain (heterosexual) bodies to extend into a space that has already assumed their shape, thus, they do not feel discomfort or a lack of belonging:

one feels better by the warmth of being faced by a world one has already taken in. One does not notice this as a world when one has been shaped by that world, and even acquired its shape. […] Queer subjects, when faced by the ‘comforts’ of heterosexuality may feel uncomfortable (the body does not ‘sink into’ a space that has already taken its shape). (148)

In addition to a discussion of (dis)comfort, I particularly enjoyed Ahmed’s discussion of queer grief, which centers its attention on how loss, mourning, melancholia, and comfort are attached to queer subjects, who by nature, must be recognized as real subjects in order to be grieved. Ahmed provides clarification in terms of the nature of a queer loss. While she admits queer grief does not imply that queer lives are existences that cannot be grieved, she focuses her attention on the fact that these grievances cannot be admitted or confessed in any way: “one has to recognise oneself as losing something before one can recognise oneself as losing something” (156).

In their analysis of grief as pertaining to unreal humans/subjects (subjects who come from “inferior” cultures that are dehumanized), both Butler and Ahmed allude to the Freudian differentiation between mourning and melancholia in order to illuminate their views. According to Freud, mourning entails a healthy process of grieving in which the living subject is able to let go of the memory of the dead subject. Melancholia, on the other hand, entails a “irrational” process in which the subject in morning and the “object” being mourned become one—in other words, the subject is unable to let go of the memory of the deceased. Whereas Freud views melancholia as pathological, Ahmed views it as a positive and productive trait when applied to unreal lives. This is because melancholia, unlike mourning, forces the subject to integrate the memory, or better said, the impression of the deceased into their own consciousness—giving the unreal a real existence that lives on through the melancholic. Furthermore, whereas mourning and the eventual rejection of the memory of the deceased implies a discomfort, melancholia entails absolute comfort with the memory of the departed. Ahmed thus proceeds to view grief as productive when it expresses itself through melancholia:

to lose another is not to lose one’s impressions, not all which are even conscious. To preserve an attachment is not to make an external other internal, but to keep one’s impressions alive, as aspects of one’s self that are both oneself and more than oneself, as a sign of one’s debt to others. One can let go of another as an outsider, but maintain one’s attachments, by keeping alive one’s impressions of the lost other. […] To grieve for others is to keep their impressions alive in the midst of their death. (160)

By keeping these impressions alive, the non-transcendence of queerness is kept alive as well, along with its inherent resistances to normativity. In Ahmed’s point of view, the melancholic integration of an unreal person permits a transcendence of queerness “that allows queer to do its work” in the first place (165). Part about what I love about this chapter is that it provides a model that can help counteract the view of the queer being associated with a lack of futurity, particularly since Ahmed’s view of queer grief through the melancholic subject allows the perpetuation of the queer body and the queer memory through the stickiness of signs. It is through this integration or queer impressions that queerness is given a shot at futurity, although it should be reiterated that queerness is not always given a chance to be integrated if it is not recognized.

Have you read Ahmed’s book? What are you impressions towards her physical/bodily approach towards emotions? What do you think of her chapter on queer feelings, especially when concerning her use of Freudian psychoanalysis?

Work Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Would you get into a bathtub with your friend? HBO’s [Girls] and Non-Sexual Intimacy

Girls

I finally got a chance to watch an episode of Girls, an American television series that began airing on HBO during 2012. The show stars and is written by Lena Dunham, and the show is partly inspired by Dunham’s real-life experiences. Strangely enough, I did not watch the first episode of the series, but rather, I watched the fourth episode of the second season titled “It’s a Shame About Ray.” Although I had very little context of what the show was about, it was clear that this show is a realistic and raw approach to the lives of four friends living in New York city. Think about the show as a middle-class Sex In the City fused with Seinfeld, with just a dash of the wit and unapologetic humor of Judd Apatow (who happens to be a producer for the series).

Hannah Horvath, the protagonist of "Girls," played by Lena Dunham.

Hannah Horvath, the protagonist of “Girls,” played by Lena Dunham.

Regardless of my lack of context and background while watching Girls, I was amazed on how issues of gender were approached by this show, especially when concerned with its depiction of the female body and friendship between women. According to what I’ve read and been told, the show’s protagonist, Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham) is constantly nude throughout the episodes of the series. Now, Hannah does not necessarily comply with the so-called normal standards of beauty. She is not supermodel thin, she has a tattoo on her arm, and she does not wear a lot of makeup. Nonetheless, Hannah is completely comfortable with her body, and she has no qualms of being naked in front of other people.

There was a moment in this episode that particularly caught my attention, not only because it depicted a situation that we don’t often encounter in television, but also because it challenges most of the ideas and assumptions that we have of gender, relationships, and the body. Check out this scene in the video below:

In order to provide some context to this video, Hannah is the person singing Oasis’s Wonderwall while taking a bath. The other person who steps into the shower is Jessa Johansson, a close friend of Hannah’s who considers herself a free-spirited bohemian. In this scene, we witness an encounter between the two friends soon after Jessa realizes that her sudden and unexpected marriage with a successful business man has collapsed. Jessa steps into the shower, hungry for an understanding soul, and we witness the intensity of an authentic friendship between two women.

I for one, have many close friends, but when it comes to nudity and my body, I definitely aim for privacy at all costs. Sure, there are friends who change in front of each other with no hesitation, but unfortunately, I am not one of those people. In all honesty, I even have issues when people stand too close to me while I’m taking care of business at a urinal in a public restroom. Thus, what was so surprising to me when watching this scene is that Hannah seems to be completely comfortable being naked in front of her friend. She does not flinch, nor does she panic. When Jessa strips off her clothes and steps into the bathroom with Hannah, my jaw nearly dropped. Naturally, as a viewer, I was expecting to see some sexual tension or nervousness between the two characters. After all, at least when it comes to film and television, what can be more intimate and sexual than two people sharing a bath together (think of bath scenes in movies such as Pretty Woman)? It is rare that we encounter two characters sharing a bath, albeit in a non-sexual fashion.

Now, if I have trouble changing in front of my friends, imagine how I would feel if one of them stepped into a bath while I was in it! Let’s just say that there would be name-calling and hair-pulling involved, to say the least. However, the level of trust between these two characters is so intense, that it only seems natural for Jessa to join Hannah in the bathtub. And to my surprise, there was no obvious discomfort portrayed in this scene in terms of nudity, and there is no embarrassment portrayed as the friends face each other naked. What surprised me most, however, is that when we encounter an intimate scene taking place between two people of the same gender in a bathtub, we automatically assume that there will be a level of homoerotic acknowledgement or sexual tension taking place in the scene. However, homoerotic or sexual tension are nowhere to be found in the exchange between Hannah and Jessa–what we get is simply a moment of non-sexual intimacy between two close friends.

We witness Jessa breaking out into tears as Hannah gently holds her hand. No words are exchanged, but it is clear that words are unnecessary during this moment. What started out as tears turns into a hilarious exchange of the grossness and indecency of a “snot rocket” taking place within the context of the bathroom–which is interesting seeing as peeing in the bathtub, or even sharing the bath with a friend are ultimately considered normal in this friendship.

While discussing this scene with a friend, she pointed out how the depiction of both friends naked within the tub seems more comfortable and natural than if Jessa were to keep her clothes on as the sympathetic exchange was taking place. It’s almost as if the nudity, and the presence of both characters within the private space, further enhances the sense of realness, rawness, and authenticity portrayed within the scene. Here we witness characters who are not only friends, but friends that know and understand each other in ways that most of us can’t even begin to comprehend.

Girls Bathtub Scene

Hannah and Jessa share a bath.

This scene makes more sense if we use Adrienne Rich‘s perspectives of the lesbian continuum in order to interpret this scene, which is a way of viewing heterosexuality and lesbianism as two ends of a continuum rather than a conceptual split. According to Rich, many sexual experiences that women face in their daily lives can be placed somewhere within this continuum, and there are some non-sexual experiences that can still be considered lesbian, or that invoke some degree of connection between two women. What we observe in this bathtub scene is an intimate exchange between two women in a bathtub, yet paradoxically, I personally am resistant to classify this scene as erotic, sexual, or even purely lesbian for that matter.

I think that this resistance is what highlights the validity and productivity of Rich’s lesbian continuum. If I were to merely describe the scene to someone, I think that their immediate reaction would be to consider this scene as a purely lesbian or homoerotic encounter. But after watching the scene, it’s easy to see that although it may seem sexual and homoerotic superficially, the profundity of the exchange nullifies any sexual or lesbian traits that we try to project onto the characters. Is it possible that a resistance to approach this scene as lesbian or homoerotic is due to the heteronormativity that is ingrained within our culture? Does it have to do with the non-sexual nature of the scene? Or, is it possible that this scene depicts a situation that resists easy categorization? I am inclined to go with this last assumption, but there is still much to be said and done with this scene.

Girls is not only providing rich food for thought, but it is also taking us into uncharted territory when it comes to the portrayal of gender in television and media. Can watchers of this show describe other instances in which Girls challenges our preconceived notions of gender, intimacy, and sexuality? Do any of you have any thoughts or opinions regarding this scene? Can any of you help me make sense of what is going on here?

Do You Hate Your Body? Western Culture, Gender, and Body Issues

Working Out

“Perfection” has its price… and when it comes to bodily perfection, this price can never be fully paid.

Some of the most awkward and disturbing conversations that I’ve had about the body have taken place during a meal. There is something about sharing food with company that ignites interesting topics of conversation as pertained to our body, nature, and food. I recall one particular instance in which I went over a friend’s house for dinner. She had a couple of guests over who were preparing a make-your-own-taco buffet. We sat down on the table and began circulating the bowls full of shredded chicken, cheese, sour cream, salsa, flour tortillas, and yellow rice. I placed two tortillas on my plate and began to scoop some shredded chicken on the tortillas when I noticed one of my friend’s guests staring at me with a look of horror on her face.

“Oh my god!” she said. “Are you going to eat ALL OF THAT?!” A confused look spread over my face. I didn’t think I was eating much, but according to my guest, two tacos was beyond extravagant. A feeling of awkwardness spread across the table. I lost my appetite. The two tacos remained on the plate, virtually untouched.

It was no secret that my friend’s guest was known for having body-image issues. Between her unstable diet and her insane workout regimen, it was a miracle that she seemed so lively and healthy. This was not the first time she made a weird or rude comment regarding food. Who could forget the time she called out my friend for eating an entire bowl of cocoa pebbles? Or the time she offered to serve us dessert, and served each one of us a 1×1″ square of brownie with a tablespoon of vanilla ice-cream on top, insisting that we must not exaggerate? But it this taco incident that truly affected me negatively, and it awoke feelings in me that were dormant for a long time.

I’ve always had issues with my body. I’ve  always been overweight (not obese, but I certainly have extra meat on my bones), I have crooked teeth, one of my eyes is slightly bigger than the other, and yes, I have a huge nose. But over the years, I had learned to grow comfortable with my body, and I had learned to accept the fact that I deviate from normal and beautiful expectations of the body. But that taco moment really scarred me in an unprecedented way. I took the comment to be a remark on my weight and my appearance. That night, when I returned home, I stared at myself in front of the mirror. I felt disgust. I felt worthless. The head of my friend’s guest circulated around my mind, mockingly asking me if I was “going to eat ALL OF THAT!”

I don’t even think we can begin to understand just how much culture affects our interpretation and perception of the human body. We live with such an immense pressure to be perfect and desirable. This desire is so intense that it completely overshadows even the most basic of biological needs: food, sex, and even rest. It comes as no surprise that because of these unrealistic cultural expectations, we have pathological phenomena such as bulimia, anorexia, among others.

These pathological phenomena are usually seen as purely negative and evil cultural manifestations. However, some reading that I have been doing during the past weeks is pushing me to question the extent to which diseases such as anorexia and bulimia are purely evil. I think we rarely seek liberation and emancipation in cultural expressions that seem subversive, violent, and even dangerous. Furthermore, I think that a dichotomous view of the word always limits our capacity to deal with notions such as morality: we either view things as entirely good or entirely bad, refusing to see the gray area that exists in between. However, I think that we’re all very well aware of the fact that the gray area tends to possess the most powerful explanatory power when it comes to grappling with difficult or controversial topics.

Does anorexia have a “positive side”? Can anorexia, despite its danger, be viewed as emancipatory? Can issues of the body be viewed as a type of protest? Feminist scholars such Susie Orbach, and Susan Bordo in her discussion of the body and the reproduction of femininity in her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body discuss the plausibility of  this notion. As pointed out by Bordo in her discussion:

A number of feminist writers, […] have interpreted anorexia as a species of unconscious feminist protest. The anorectic is engaged in a “hunger strike,” as Orbach calls it, stressing that this is a political discourse, in which the action of food refusal and dramatic transformation of body size “expresses with [the] body what [the anorectic] is unable to tell us with words”–her indictment of a culture that disdains and suppresses female hunger, makes women ashamed of their appetites and needs, and demands that women constantly work on the transformation of their body. (463)

Keep in mind that Bordo and Orbach are in no way justifying anorexia , and they are certainly not pushing people to view this pathological manifestation as a solution. Anorexia is unfortunate and very dangerous. However, they do suggest that people who do suffer from this pathology certainly convey an interesting bodily rhetoric, in which their condition is not only symptomatic of cultural pressures and expectations, but it is also illustrates everything that is downright wrong within contemporary culture. Sure, people suffering from anorexia and bulimia are not conscious of this protest, but their body serves as a walking indication that something is very wrong when it comes to the aspirations that culture pushes us to strive for.

The expectations of perfection when it comes to the body are so pervasive that they have transcended beyond the realm of the feminine. It is well known that anorexia, and body issues, are not exclusive when it comes to gender. Men, myself included, are also expected to achieve a degree of physical and bodily perfection, else we suffer from feeling worthless and ugly under the guise of contemporary culture. You are expected to have well-defined muscles, but you can’t have too much muscle because that’s too excessive. You can’t be too thin. You can’t be fat. You have to have short hair, a six-pack, a slender waist, a stoic stance. Yes, men these days have just as many expectations as women do when it comes to their bodies.

Jackson Whittemore, a character from MTV's Teen Wolf, in a shower scene that glorifies and commodifies his physical beauty. (Image property of MTV. No copyright infringement intended).

Jackson Whittemore (played by Colton Haynes), a character from MTV’s Teen Wolf. This is a screenshot taken a shower scene that glorifies and commodifies his physical beauty. Notice that this show is aimed primarily at a young adult audience (Image property of MTV. No copyright infringement intended).

Popular shows watched by young audiences, such as MTV’s smash show Teen Wolf, definitely perpetuate this notion of physical perfection, especially when it comes to their depiction and glorification of the male body. Now, I’m not saying this is a purely terrible thing. After all, “eye-candy,” a well-sculpted body, is indeed awe-inspiring and impressive (and it sure makes us feel wonderful in many ways), but what message is being sent when all of the men and women present within the show are beautiful, physically fit, and well-groomed? It sets unrealistic expectations. I, for one, will never look like Colton Haynes when I step out of the shower. I’ve accepted that fact.

When we are surrounded by frail bodies that are wasting away, walking skeletons that seem to be only a few steps away from death itself… there is definitely a scream for help being shouted at the face of culture itself. Sure, anorexia can be approached as a form of protest, but it’s a protest that shouldn’t be necessary. It’s disturbing, as Bordo points out, that “The pathologies of female protest function, paradoxically, as if in collusion with the cultural conditions that produce them, reproducing rather than transforming precisely that which is being protested” (464). The “protest” doesn’t fight against the pathology, but rather, it perpetuates it. The so-called solution that culture has rendered, the so-called protest, only feeds the cultural monster of the body in Western culture. And this sense of pathology, as I pointed out above, now goes beyond the production of femininity. It is a problem that is now blind to gender.

But now that we are aware of the problems and paradoxes of body and its relationship to Western culture, how do we even begin to solve them? We need to reconsider not only our theories and approaches towards gender and the body, but also the practices that we engage in as a response to these issues.

References:

Bordo, Susan. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print. 460 – 466.

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net