But why can’t I look at Playboy? I’m a girl!   6 comments

I remember reading Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS) when I was a young girl and feeling as if I was reading something forbidden, like when I snuck my dad’s Playboy magazines or my best friend stole her mom’s copy of The Joy of Sex. It was our own benign version of pornography—access to information about our own bodies. This was illicit not only because we were probably too young to read about manual stimulation during “coitus” but because reading about our own parts was new and felt wrong, perhaps because no one had ever shared such information with us. Even the video we watched in school about our periods and having babies was sterile and vague, limited to diagrams and processes, rather than any clue as to what we would experience beyond the physiological. Wells speaks to this sense of separation between “our bodies” and “ourselves,” as OBOS sought to ameliorate such feelings.

One of the many authors of the text writes, “Since the alienation of women from their bodies has been one of the main aims of male domination, we must take control of our own bodies before we can liberate our minds and be our own people” (Hawley, in Wells 42). The alienation of women (and men) from their own bodies has been the bedrock of oppression, from the rape of African women during slavery to the contemporary imposition of the beauty ideal on women (and men ) leading to dramatic interventions such as plastic surgery (women colonizing their own bodies, a la Haraway). I don’t mean to compare slavery to plastic surgery since slavery was forcibly imposed whereas the beauty ideal is compulsory, but I do mean to draw parallels between oppressions as linked to bodies.

Wells speaks to the tension between notions of essentialism and feminist investment in social constructs. I also have difficulty with this in the context of OBOS because on one hand, women are united through their experience as women, even when that experience is very different (due to race, culture, religion, etcetera) but we are also very different. Woman is not a monolithic category, which is one reason why charges of essentialism are important to address, but in the OBOS context, the common thread is “the female body” and related experiences which do link women, such as childbirth, periods, the elusive vaginal orgasm (and the existence of but secrecy around the clitoris), domestic violence, breast cancer. Of course lesbians do not experience sex the same as heterosexual women, some women cannot or choose not to have children, and perhaps someone has experienced a vaginal orgasm, but emphasizing connections among women is a valid practice because we do share so much physiology and we share a history of oppression under patriarchy even if that oppression looks very different from woman to woman. This is not to imply that men do not experience oppression under patriarchy but it is more systematic for women (post-slavery).

The concepts of “strategic” or “paradoxical” essentialism Wells refers to are useful because there is a fine line between what we experience as “natural” and what is constructed (97). When I teach, I often address how social constructions are so pervasive that they appear natural—we internalize our constructs and begin to think of them as inherent, particularly because we see them all around us. And some individuals do believe certain traits are inherent, and certainly hormones come into play with particular behaviors and drives, but the associate attitudes and accompanying expectations related to our sex are wholly constructed. The “OBOS writer was a paradoxical essentialist who saw the claims advanced by identity politics as both real and aspirational. Members of the collective are not at all strategic in their belief that women share something concrete and politically consequential based on their female embodiment” (97). They believed women share certain traits and experiences but were also aware of how these operate in tandem with culture. As Wells writes, “there could be no ‘natural’ way of talking about the body since the body always comes to us through multiple layers of cultural mediation” (144).

How can we negotiate the tension between biology and culture, nature and nurture when talking about bodies, since they are a conflation of both?

I was going to include my response to Gen regarding our exchange about the quote for our presentation but I will reply to her post since I am about out of space here. Looking forward to discussion tonight, as always:)

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Posted October 12, 2010 by Lela in Uncategorized

6 responses to “But why can’t I look at Playboy? I’m a girl!

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  1. Leandra:

    That reading this felt somehow wrong is really at the heart of the book’s original purpose: to address the idea that there is something wrong with the female body.

    Periods are somehow dirty and a source of embarrassment despite their connection to LIFE and reproduction.

    Pregnancy is dangerous and must be supervised by doctors.

    Female bodies belong in magazines wrapped in brown paper–and must be hidden in the back of the closet.

    A woman who enjoys her body must be promiscuous rather than knowledgable.

    A girl curious about her body is a teen-pregnancy waiting to happen…

    The list goes on.

    Elle

  2. Yes, Elle’s point relate’s to Susan Well’s discussion of how the women’s health movement reclaimed “sexual and reproductive anatomy…as an argument field for feminism” (151).

  3. Leandra, given the tension between essentialism and recognition of difference that you identify, how would you respond to Wells’s argument that the collective’s distributed authorship and “historicized universalism” successfully engaged “both essentalist and constructivist positions” (97)and invited readers/users to relate universalizing messages to the contexts of their individual lives? (if I’m reading her correctly)

  4. ARGH!!

    And then the actual reference for most women to learn about their own bodies is the latest column in Cosmo on “how to give yourself the best orgasm”…….and “do you know your hot spots?!”…seriously…….

  5. Dear Leandra and commenters,

    Working on this project brought me up against the argument in De Oratore about whether the orator has to, you know, really understand stuff. As a feminist, I was kind of uneasy with the collective’s belief in essentialism–they really had followed the critique of essentialism, knew that there were alternatives, but didn’t see the need for them. But as a rhetorician, I really can’t have a position about whether essentialism is right or wrong: it’s not my art to make political judgments, especially when, for these women, essentialism has supported an incredibly rich and diverse practice. But then again, as a feminist rhetorician, I’m trying to balance my political engagement with my analytic project. This was a set of contradictions that I contained but did not resolve.

    Please think about it and do better.

    Sue

  6. Hi Leandra,

    Your post was great, as always, but I especially liked your statement that, “When I teach, I often address how social constructions are so pervasive that they appear natural—we internalize our constructs and begin to think of them as inherent, particularly because we see them all around us. And some individuals do believe certain traits are inherent, and certainly hormones come into play with particular behaviors and drives, but the associate attitudes and accompanying expectations related to our sex are wholly constructed.”

    Once again, I’m reminded of Haraway’s discussion of the “Culture of No Culture,” where she demonstrates how Science has convinced itself that it is beyond culture, that it is somehow “purely objective” (and any deviation from this so called objectivity is seen as a flaw).

    As T&T students, I think we would all agree that Science is very far from objective, but even with that realization, I know it’s often still difficult for me to “see” the construct behind the objectivity. This sense that Science is purely rational is so ingrained in us that it become invisible, which is one of the reasons why Haraway calls for a Modest Witness.

    Since Science and Medicine are often conflated, this general sense of Culture of No Culture tends to exist within it as well, not only for the practitioners but the patients as well.

    Say, for example, that I go to the doctor and I’m diagnosed with X illness. The doctor prescribes Y as a treatment. On the surface, this seems very factual, very “objective.” I know that there is a social construction at work, but I have trouble seeing it. Since this is a scenario and not a real-life situation, I can sit here and brainstorm possible research avenues in order to reveal what has been hidden by the Culture of No Culture. How was this drug developed, and what power structures are at work? Did the pharmaceutical company invest all of their resources in only one avenue of research (which has resulted in the Y drug), and as a result, ignored other possible research avenues in the process? Does my doctor have any particular bias? Is he flirting with the pharmaceutical rep for Y drug company and prescribing their drugs in order to get in good with him/her? What alternative approaches is my doctor not telling me about? etc. etc.

    Of course, if my health is at stake, am I really going to take the time to pursue any of those research questions or am I going to take the prescription to the nearest pharmacy? That’s one added dimension to this dilemma–whereas most Science will affect me eventually, most Medicine effects me immediately, so even if I know that there are constructs at work, am I really going to care when I’m in that moment?

    -John L.

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