Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Politics of Bodies

When I told a friend that NAW's theme of the month was body image, she said, "That's original." It was of course sarcasm. Initially, my only response was, "Well, it's original for us. We've never had that theme before." But as I thought it over, I considered just how fundamental the body is to... well, everything.

Consider, for example, how one woman's life is altered by her chronic pain. Or how people respond to her pain and question whether it's real. When a person frequently calls into work sick, it's not uncommon for co-workers to wonder if they're lying, or maybe imagining that they're in pain. It's not as if we can ever really understand what someone else feels. In my family, for instance, we have more pain sensors per square inch of skin than the average person. Which I only know because three of us consistently discovered these results in a middle school science class. But I coudn't convince my childhood dentist of this fact. When he was extracting an impacted wisdom tooth and I told him it hurt, he said, "I know. You feel the pressure."

A few years later, I went to a different dentist to complain about a toothache. The dentist accused me of being a hypochondriac, only to apologize when he found a cavity underneath an old filling done by my incompetent childhood dentist. When I went back to this new dentist to have my remaining wisdom teeth removed (all impacted), he didn't question my judgment for an instant. When he tugged on the tooth and I gasped - he gave me as much Novocaine as he was legally allowed to. At the end of the procedure, he gave me an extra shot "for the road."

But not everyone can convince people that they're truly in pain. An old friend of mine said that each time her autistic brother went to a doctor in NYC, the doctors saw a tall black man and assumed he was high. Our bodies factor into the way people perceive us even when it's not a question of what we're truly feeling inside. Recently, for instance, I heard a woman explain that she didn't find an article we were discussing very credible because the author used diction that made him sound "like a black man in the ghetto."

What this woman didn't know, of course, was that for a few years I roomed with a black woman from Queens who was one of the most intelligent people I've met, or that I once dated a black man from Brooklyn. So she didn't know that I have encountered people from the backgrounds she described, with the skin tones she described, who were in no way unintelligent. But at the same time, this woman picked up on something about audiences in general - they consider a speaker's appearance when they determine whether to be persuaded by that speaker's rhetoric.

Bodies have always been in politics, of course. Rape, murder, and torture are long-standing traditions in war and in government, and appearance has only become a bigger factor in elections over the last several decades as a result of media projecting images all over the place. Just consider how attractive Obama, Bush and Clinton are, compared to some of the earlier presidents. Appearance can determine a lot about where your life goes.

Which is not to say that we should all be obsessed with our appearance or with our bodies. First of all, the things that make people look like movie stars usually aren't healthy. And second of all, there's no reason why we have to accept a world of shallow people. Along with increased advertising and a cultural obsession with appearance, we find movements that promote accepting your body the way it is and learning not to judge people by their appearance. Take the TV series How to Look Good Naked, for instance, in which women with all sorts of body types are encouraged to love their bodies as is. Like Erica, I find it very sad that despite Raven Symone's belief that she looked great as a big woman, others didn't agree. But I still find hope in the fact that she thought she looked great.

And if this post hasn't already convinced you that body image is worth discussing, just watch Killing Us Softly.

1 comment:

  1. The idea of whether or not people believe someone's in pain, and why, is very interesting. Some have suggested that society understands pain as being more "natural" or acceptable for women than men, especially certain kinds of pain. Yet, when men show they are in pain, they are told to "take it like a man." Women who experience sexual pain often are told that the pain is "all in their head," and it is usually doctors saying this to them! What bodies are expected to tolerate pain? Is pain somehow gendered?