More Body Politics, Part I
I want to take some time to discuss Bodies by Susie Orbach, the book that has set me free in many ways. (My pregnancy is entering this concept of body image in very interesting ways, but I want to save the majority of that reflection, and how it connects to Orbach’s work, for my part two entry.)
My pregnant body is right on schedule when it comes to the various predictions of where a woman should be when it comes to her progress. As soon as I entered the third trimester about a week or so ago, I have been awash with tremendous sleepiness. But the curse of it all is that I often can’t sleep at night. So I’m tired during the day and take naps when I can, but then when night comes, I lay wide awake and keep my husband awake with my body fort of six pillows, my momentous flipping-over-to-the-other-side sessions, and my pain. My hips are killing me. So are my sciatic nerves. I only sleep when my body passes out from sheer exhaustion.
My salvation has been the swimming pool at my local gym. As soon as my summer classes were over, I tried out a water aerobics class, and I am in love. When my dense body hits the water, I feel normal again; I feel thin again (like many women, I equate thinness with normalcy, while Orbach takes it a step further and states how “thinness has become an aspirational issue, a means to enter what on the surface appears to be a new classless society” [122-23], which I will explore at a later time). I am able to move my legs with ease; no duck waddling necessary. It feels great to be able to throw my weight around and get my heart rate going. I haven’t been able to exercise as I normally have because the baby weight pain is so heavy, so these biweekly classes, along with my solitary laps on other days, have helped not just my body feel stronger, but my mind and emotional space feel stronger too.
The act of putting on a swimsuit with a protruding belly has been a mental journey for me. I am the heaviest I have ever been in regards to my weight, and I’ve fought against feeling fat for most of my life (even when I was downright skinny). So on the first day, I stripped down to my suit in the women’s locker room with a bit of trepidation. Then I looked around and saw the various bodies surrounding me: wrinkly, saggy, plush, short, tall, young, old, whiter than snow, black as ink. Cellulite galore. I fit right in. I walked to the pool without protection from my towel. My belly and my thick thighs and arms walked across a sea of eyes. And we all swam together, the water’s warm embrace welcoming us all.
I have never seen so many un-beautiful bodies in one place as in my water aerobics class.
I have never seen so many confident bodies in one place as in my water aerobics class.
I think a discussion of Kim Kardashain on the MTV VMA red carpet is in order as a sampling of what Orbach discusses in her work.
I saw this image of Kim and Kanye last night when I was lying in bed trying to sleep, and I thought wow, she did it: she lost all of her baby weight. And good for her, right? She obviously had to work very hard to do this, and since her job is her body, she had to invest time and energy into it. And as Orbach says, “Our bodies are increasingly being experienced as objects to be honed and worked on” (2). Kim’s body is an object. She has allowed it and promoted it to become an object, and she’s made a lot of money by doing that. And now she can show off her grand prize, poised in front of the male backdrop, his white disappearing behind her black. Her body says to the world, “I am your opus, / I am your valuable, / The pure gold baby” as stated by Sylvia Plath. Yet this is also the body “That melts to a shriek” because “The standardized youthful body we see promoted and which we then endeavor to create individually is not a stable body” (Orbach 173). Time is a harsh master; nature renders the body to be unstable. She is turning 36 in a few months (welcome to the club, baby). She will never be young again.
But in this moment, she is praised for her body work, which is the gold standard. While at one point our bodies were simply instruments for completing work and procreating, we now have the luxury to use our minds for work. This leaves our bodies as pet projects that we can then tame:
“Late capitalism has catapulted us out of centuries-old bodily practices which were centred on survival, procreation, the provision of shelter and the satisfaction of hunger. Now birthing, illness and ageing, while part of the ordinary cycle of life, are also events that can be interrupted or altered by personal endeavor in which one harnesses the medical advances and surgical restructurings on offer. Our body is judged as our individual production. …. our body is our calling card, vested with showing the results of our hard work and watchfulness or, alternatively, our failure and sloth” (Orbach 6).
Kim’s body is her calling card, demonstrating her hard work and watchfulness. Because of her cultural influence, she has helped to reintroduce our modern definition of feminine beauty: the tiny waist and the large boobs and butt. Marilyn Monroe did the same thing in her generation. And, like Kim, Marilyn had to work hard to keep her body in line. Neither one of them wanted to exemplify failure and sloth.
Both Kim and Marilyn (among many others) represent these Westernized ideals of what it means to have a proper female body. Here are two reasons why:
A. We have almost a moral obligation to whip our bodies into proper form.
“It is up to each person to fix his or her own body as though it were in need of a redesign” (Orbach 102).
B. If we don’t tend to our bodies like these A-listers (or at the very least try to emulate their efforts), then we are not true members of modern society.
“…the ‘right’ food and the ‘right’ size now signify one’s membership in modernity, while failing to get one’s food and size right can signify shame, failure or rejection of the values we are presumed to aspire to” (Orbach 13).
What IS the right size?
Are any of the women in my water aerobics class the right size? And if they are, how long do they retain that “right” status? Am I myself ever the right size, especially since I have “an excuse” for my size?
Why do I often feel that my body is in need of a redesign? And, how will this be magnified once the baby is out in the world and I am left with the remnants of pregnancy?
I’m such a consumer as it is; I don’t want my body to be commodified anymore.