Saturday, February 21, 2009

viewing womens experiance of eating disorders as active practice versus passive affliction

I've been thinking a lot about how the topic of eating disorders is discussed within my circle of what I would call quite independent and intelligent female friends. As individuals who are all aware of the fact that the female body ideal is ridiculous and that media and larger societal systems negatively influence women to view their bodies as less than par and in need of regulation, we have found that our own experiences of bad body image, measures to lose weight or to appear a certain way, even as far as actual experiences of anorexic and/or bulimic behavior are almost embarrassing to admit to because we, as strongly self-professed damn-the-mannists, are "supposed to be above all that," we are supposed to be strong and independent women going against the grain. As the topic seemed to come up again and again, more people seemed to admit to their own experiences of body altering (secret trips to the gym, diet pills; etc)and I began to notice a connection between the powerful and determined independence of my friends and the very individual practice of losing weight and other anorexic tendencies. Whether or not this was 'healthy,' I couldn't help but ask myself whether or not such practices might instead be viewed as proclamations of "girl power" due to the individual control one not only has, but in this case, that one takes and demands over one's body. What if anorexia, without disregaurding larger socio-cultural problems involved in the notion of ideal bodies, were to be looked at through this lens as something that represents the active female versus the passive victim.

It was then that I stumbled upon this lovely article by Abigail Bray and Claire Colebrook titled "The Haunted Flesh: Corporeal Feminism and the Politics of (Dis)Embodiment."

Within it, Bray and Colebrook call for a new active feminist ethics through which to examine eating disorders which is modeled after the work of philosopher Gilles Deleuze. In doing so, they suggest a move away from traditional methods of understanding eating disorders that focus on representation, which places women in a position of passivity and reinforces the Cartesian mind/body dualism, and rather into a view of the body as “the event of expression (36).” This new ethics “approaches sexual difference as a site of practices, comportments, and contested articulations” through which eating disorders may be understood “in terms of bodily activity rather than in terms of a repressed or negated ‘normal’ body (37).”

This proposed ethics is applied further to instances of anorexia nervosa as body practices as “productive, as forms of self-formation (58).” This article is perhaps most useful for its discussion of deviancy and the suggestion that the anorexic body, as deviant and as active subject, might be considered an expression of sexual politics which challenge societal norms. The authors’ discussion (and challenge) of the biomedical language used to classify and pathologize anorexia as well as its approaches to “treatment” take this idea further as the theories traditionally used (and also informing other feminist scholarly discussions of the body) to discuss eating disorders are themselves phallogocentric and a form of disciplining gender identity through access to and control of the body. From this, the authors suggest that “anorexia, then, is a series of practices and comportments; there are no anorexics, only activities of dietetics, measuring, regulation and calculation (62).” This view then positions the anorexic subject to be read and understood as a discursive event (reflective of societal ideological context) which occurs “within a general discursive network,” in this case, “concerned with analysis, regulation, and normalization (63).”

Bray, Abigail, and Claire Colebrook. "The Haunted Flesh: Corporeal Feminism and the Politics of (Dis)Embodiment." Signs 24 (1998): 35-67.

Kristeva and the "unbound signifer"

I've been doing some preliminary research for my senior comp which I would like to have something to do with the androgynous female body. Recently, I was reading and article which made reference to Julia Kristeva's concept of the "subject in process/trial" (le sujet-en-procés) and, having read the book Revolt, She Said once upon a time and generally liking what I found, I decided to indulge myself and read about this new term I stumbled upon in its original home within the book Revolution in Poetic Language. In it, Kristeva examines the possibilities of linguistics that is focused on the speaking subject, with Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis as a theoretical starting-point for examining the signifying process.

In the chapter I was most interested in, Kristeva explores the concept of Hegelian negativity as a “conflictual state” whose subject being “a process, an intersection –an impossible unity (118)” requires the act of “rejection,” a fixing of the subject in place, in order that it might be signifiable. I believe that Kristeva’s concept of the “subject in process/trial” (le sujet-en-procés) (111) can be useful as a theoretical lens through which to look at the androgynous body and the manner in which society attempts to read, make sense, or also “deal” with it as an ‘unbound signifier’ whose constant state of seemingly unresolved flux creates a state of tension by disrupting structures and systems of meaning and understanding that is otherwise considered natural (such as the male female gender binary, female role as reproducers, the female as passive versus active; etc.)

It also made me think a bit of Judith Butler's call for "gender trouble" by playing around with gender performance as a means of challenging and moving the boundaries within which bodies are disciplined to "fit." Kristeva's concept provides an explanation for why such gender play might initiate the reshaping of gender boundaries by looking more explicitly at the reception of those performative practices.

Kristeva, Julia. "Negativity: Rejection." Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. 107-164.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Wrong Bathroom" – Politics of Gendered Bathrooms on Allegheny's Campus

My personal familiarity with transgender issues began largely with a volunteer experience that I had at “The Center,” San Francisco’s center for LGBT members of the community (as well as allies!) based in the city’s famous gay-friendly Castro district. Although I was only working there for a short amount of time (about a week or two) I encountered much more than I was expecting…perhaps most relevant to my post here: a non-gendered/sexed bathroom, complete with an advance “apology” note posted outside of the door that prefaced with The Center’s understanding of the variety of personal positions and self-identifications that visitors to The Center may hold concerning their gender and/or sex as well as an acknowledgement of the general discomfort and/or political problems surrounded by the experience of the public bathroom. They even apologized for the pictographic sign that they used to signify that the bathroom was intended for use of both sexes, using both the classic bathroom man slash classic bathroom woman with “gender-appropriate” clothing as sign coding, by commenting on the problem that they recognize in the larger society’s reaffirmation of gender and/or sex binaries through such common usages as in, for example, designating public restroom facilities. While I can understand their intentions and concerns leading to the posting of such a note, I find it quite interesting that they still chose to utilize the classic gendered bathroom imagery (and therefore be in their own way somewhat complicit in its continued use and coded meaning).

Although I had been exceptionally familiar with Lesbian, Gay and Bi issues, I hadn’t really encountered much concerning the Trans community outside of familiarity of the terms associated with it before my time at The Center which included assisting the running of San Francisco’s first Transgender Job Fair. It was this hands-on encounter, so-to-speak, with so many different members of the community who classified themselves as Trans for one reason or another that really heightened my awareness (and inspired my interest) concerning the ability for gender and sex to be fluid and/or defined outside of otherwise pre-organized/pre-established classifications. My interest in the idea of gender performance in particular carried into my studies through the Communication Arts department here at Allegheny College where I was able to learn new theories that seemed to speak directly to what I had perhaps experienced in San Francisco (and began to recognize more and more all around me in daily life.) For a department that defines and seems to pride itself on its progressive stances concerning cultural and social issues however, a very curious thing happened with the department move to the new Vukovich building (and might be seen as still happening) that seems counter to this stance.

Can you guess my direction with this? That’s right – the bathroom.

It was a cold January day when I found refuge in the shiny new home to the Communication Arts department after its move over winter break. Roaming the halls and exploring the new layout, I soon found myself on the third floor which is home to the offices of the CommArts professors. Stopping by one of my favorite professor friends to say hello and perhaps have a quick chat, I learned of something about the new building, particularly of the third floor, an explanation that he treated like an entertainment weekly scandal, his voice in a whisper, players involved to remain anonymous. He pointed me out of his office not far into the hall and pointed to the bathrooms. There were two single occupant bathrooms next to one another and although, as if intentionally made to reflect the forward-thinking socially conscious identification of the department, each was labeled with a permanent placard denoting them as non-sex/non-gendered restrooms. Much like at The Center in San Francisco, these signs presented both the classic female and male pictograms with the addition of a (note) unisex handicapped symbol. “Aw what an awesome idea…” I thought, presuming that some of the theories we have learned in class might have been applied to “real life” in the faculty’s involvement in the planning of the new building. That is, until my attention was diverted to the Zeroxed sheets slapped up on each door, one reading “men” and the other “women,” taped to the center like a “kick me” sign to stare you in the face, god forbid one were to possibly miss it and enter the wrong bathroom. “Hmm…” I said to him with a raised eyebrow, “So…who’s idea was this?” Pleading the need to keep names confidential, I could tell that he had an issue with it.

While we both acknowledged something problematic in this display, the signage didn’t seem as much of a problem as the gendered nature of each restroom’s interiors. One step into the women’s restroom and one finds a dainty mini coffee table upon which lay a box of facial tissues, lotion, and an array of popular magazines spread out attractively like a fan. Upon complaints from my male-identified professor friend, I suggested that he doll up the men’s restroom to his liking were he so strongly driven. At this suggestion, he shrugged the issue off his shoulders and the conversation quickly changed to a different topic. Although he wouldn’t tell me who was responsible for the re-gendering of the gender neutral restrooms in this first encounter, I have a feeling that with a little undercover work and a bit of charm I’ll be able to get the scoop out of someone.

Image from the Gender Anarchy Project :