Following up on Ari’s post below–check out the continued Gender U: Framing Feminism on Today’s College Campus on our Vimeo site.
It was an honor to share the stage with this brain trust of women. To introduce the conversation, I explained my own experience with Women’s Studies on a college campus–as a student at the University of Michigan in the mid-90s. I was a musical theater major, but I’d come to school interested in women’s history (growing up in Rochester, NY surely helped to foster that) and already fascinated by the legacy of feminism I’d inherited from my mother’s generation and the way my generation was beginning to define our own legacy. I started to take classes in the women’s studies department—and considered embarking on a double major. The task of navigating these two fields, one which so embraced traditional gender roles and the other which questioned them, proved to be difficult territory to navigate, and eventually my trajectory changed in other ways. Which is all to say, I never ended up a Women’s Studies major. But there’s a part of me that still wishes I had.
Several of the questions from the audience on Sunday (and we’re working on getting that portion of the panel posted) suggested, “There must be more important topics for feminists to be worrying about than body image right now. What about the horrible oppression women face in many parts of the world? Or the attack on reproductive rights happening right here in the US?”
Yes, Yes, and Yes. But, as our panelists pointed out, each of these concerns relates to the next, which relates to the next, which relates to “who has power over our bodies and lives” which is also what BODY AWARENESS is all about. And so none of these battles are mutually exclusive. And I would say–there is little value to assigning them rank and order.
Our panelists also noted that they are encountering young women at a time when body image is the issue that brings them to the Women’s Studies department in the first place, because it is the one most personal to them. And that Body Awareness (and yes, Eating Disorders–which even while trying to change the nomenclature, the character of Phyllis surely recognizes as a real and present concern for college age women and increasingly for men) are not simply about looks, but rather about power and control.
My own self-imposed hunger strike as a seventeen-year-old inspired a concerned older friend to gift me THE BEAUTY MYTH during my senior year of high school. I pulled my broken-in copy from my book shelf this morning, and tracking my frequent underlining and purple-markered exclamation points is like stepping back in time. Wolf wrote, “But female fat is the subject of public passion, and women feel guilty about female fat, because we implicitly recognize that under the myth, women’s bodies are not our own but society’s, and that thinness is not a private aesthetic, but hunger a social concession exacted by the community. A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.” (Emphasis my own, or more specifically, that of my younger self.) She goes on to write, “Where feminism taught women to put a higher value on ourselves, hunger teaches us now to erode our self-esteem.”
Wolf’s book elicited polarized responses from the public and mainstream media, but hit a necessary target with me. Recognizing that I was giving away, rather than claiming, power helped me to turn an important corner. Ironically, it was my ballet teacher at Michigan who gave me the final nudge around that corner when she sat me down and explained that unless I started treating my body better, it simply would not have the strength to make it through our first-year course load, pragmatically explaining, “You’ve made yourself weak, but you can make yourself strong again.”
We are taught in so many ways to hate our bodies. Female genital mutilation in parts of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula teaches us to hate our sexuality. The war on reproductive rights teaches us to resent our ovaries and our wombs, over which we may have increasingly less control. Systematic rape as a tool in war teaches us that there are new and ever more terrifying ways to impart battle scars on a female population. Other kinds of rape and sexual assault (according to Wikipedia: date rape, anger rape, power rape, sadistic rape, gang rape, and spousal rape) teach us to be ashamed and wary of our breasts, our legs, our skin. Excessive photo-shopping of the female body in advertising and fashion magazines teaches us to hate our curves and wrinkles.
Different battles, but all the same war.
And conversations like this one–both within the play and afterwards–arm us with some useful weapons to bring to the charge: knowledge, awareness, and an out-spoken voice.