“Because it’s so GREAT and ENVIABLE to have your womanhood validated by straight men’s demeaning cat-calls. Because, in some fucking alternate world I’ve never had the luxury of visiting, being deemed sexually attractive by the standards of our culture means no longer being subject to body-policing (seriously… in what fucking world?!?). Etc.”
I recently ran into this quote on Natalie Reed’s blog (hurry up and get over there, she’s leaving soon and the archives will disappear. You’ll miss out on LOTS if you don’t read some of her stuff) about “passing” in trans* culture, and how for many people, passing is the gold standard of “trans-ness” (I’m really bad with this language because these issues really aren’t my personal ones and I’m still educating myself so please forgive any offensive or inappropriate language, I am trying my best and if you see something that’s wrong feel free to comment and let me know). It’s in response to the idea that as a trans woman, being found attractive by straight men is wonderful.
What really stood out to me was the last sentence: “In some fucking alternative world I’ve never had the luxury of visiting, being deemed sexually attractive by the standards of our culture means no longer being subject to body-policing”. OH MY GOD YES. This is something that has driven me crazy for ages. The dialogue about bodies and body shaming right now very much centers around fat, fat phobia, fat acceptance. That’s fine. Those are obviously the bodies that get the most shaming and policing. But there’s something far more insidious that goes on, even with bodies deemed “attractive”. And that goes beyond fat shaming, and into straight up sexism.
I have always been relatively conventionally attractive. I’m white, I’m slim, I’m tall. I personally don’t think I’m all that much to look at, but in general I fit into the basic demographic categories that should make me “attractive”. That doesn’t mean that I escape from body policing or body shaming. While I obviously agree that a dialogue around fatness and the cruelty people bring to fat individuals is important, I also think it’s important to point out instances in which EVERYONE is body policed, and to recognize those as instances in which female bodies are viewed as public property.
As a skinny individual, I have had people tell me that I need to eat more. That I look unhealthy. People have congratulated me when I eat unhealthy foods. I have had friends tell me I should wear more revealing clothing to show off my assets, and I have had boyfriends tell me to wear less revealing clothing because they didn’t want guys staring at my body. I have been told that I can firm up my fat into muscle if I exercise more, I’ve been told I’m too pudgy, I’ve been told my boobs are too small. Yeah, I’ve been cat-called. Starting when I was 13. I’ve been told my skirt is too short, that I should get contacts, that I should cut my hair or grow out my hair or wear my hear up or wear my hair down.
While many people who are fat think that they are the only people who get this type of interaction, the interaction that says “oh your body would look better if only…”, that is simply not true. They may think that other people pay no attention to how skinny people eat. Again, not true. All of these are marks of the way that many people feel as if they have a right to others’ bodies, or a right to some measure of attractiveness from the bodies around them. Most often this is in relation to women, which is why it appears to be a sign of sexism to me. More often than not, I get these kinds of comments from strangers or bare acquaintances, who feel that it is their business or duty to tell me how to look attractive or what to do with my body, although in some cases it’s someone who’s very close who feels that my body belongs to them. Most often it’s males, but sometimes it’s females who think they’re “doing me a favor”. I believe that on some level, the societal belief that they’re entitle to fat people’s bodies might be related to sexism. Often we see overweight men emasculated: the first derogatory term I think of when I think of an obese man is “manboobs”. Masculinity is supposed to be associated with strength, with physical ability, with virility, with power. These are not things we associate with the overweight, and I think that for many, being overweight is emasculating. This seems to allow other men to feel they have a right to criticize or control that body.
What all these ideas do is tell me and others that we need to be attractive (or masculine and fit). That that’s the rent I owe for taking up the space I’m in. That it is other people’s business how I look and what I do with my body. In reality, it should not affect anyone around me if I went out wearing a burlap sack, because what I do with my body and my clothes is my business, and I owe no one “cuteness”. And in high school when I was told over and over that my skirt had to be a certain length, or my shirt had to buttoned up so high, they perpetuated the idea that my body was dangerous, that boys would do bad things or be distracted or that it was simply WRONG if I let people see my body. And that my body had to be arranged in the appropriate way for those around me, both looking good (shirt had to be tucked in, right color shirt and shoes, no hair over eyes), and not showing too much to cause a ruckus.
Perhaps it should be time to start leaving other people’s bodies alone. Someone’s body is an intimate part of their self, and as a society we have cut ourselves off from that. We have decided that bodies are vessels that we need to perfect, and when we’ve perfected them then we’ll be free from any of this policing. But that’s not how it works. Bodies are an integral part of how we experience the world and ourselves, and our physical reactions to things make up a huge part of our identity. That is not something to perfect, but something to embrace. And no matter how “perfect” we become, if we view our bodies mechanically, we will always see how we could get better and continue to rip each other apart, because why would you keep something that is subpar? Our bodies don’t owe anyone else anything. Not attractiveness, not skinniness, not whiteness, not femininity or masculinity, nothing. We don’t have to earn our space or our bodies.
I feel like you almost spoke to the whole general spectrum of entitlement rather than sexism. Though no doubt sexism has played a bit role in how you have been related too, since image, body and sexuality are intimately tied for many people. I feel though that it is more that sexism is meted out there than it is a property of such. I have had lewd catcalls, grabs of all sorts, and commentary to my face, friends and all about on physical appearances and shoulds. Probably one of the most humorous was when in High School I dressed as Dr. Frank-n-furter as my group of friends dressed in themes, or another time as psycho-murder cheerleaders (where my friends derived no end of pleasure tossing me in the girls bathroom and dressing me and applying appropriate make-up). It was the calls that day those turned stomachs and confused people that made me giggle. So many expectations
I think that is a lot of it too, that people tend to project and force on others what they force on themselves or on their world-view. That hating my own skinniness or fatness, boniness or meatiness, tallness or shortness tends to project onto the whole spectrum and expectations in others. I don’t think this is all of it, but at least a sizable part in talking with people who have been on both the receiving and giving ends.
Then too, I think there is a bit of hangover from our days when we were medieval, when we treated and punished and related to the corporal body as the thing which corrupts the perfect soul within. That we had to punish the body for the sins, not the self or soul. That it somehow became perverted and we need to fix it. Then in time we began to try to punish the person to correct the identity and self, as our punitive systems and way of thinking of ourselves began to develop a more complex schema and set to act with and upon.
While I don’t believe they have such a direct causal relationship, I can’t help but notice that they are quite remarkably similar.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and words, I like how you dig into the perspectives and try to wrestle with the contentions within rather than prescribe and fight with the superficial symptoms. You’re comment of wearing the burlap sack reminded me of the paperbag princess, good memories.