During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, “Not for Ourselves Alone” is running a special series called 30 Days of Bodyshaming, designed to give a voice to the many different experiences of girls and women. This series will feature guest posts by professors, writers, a nutritionist, a cartoonist, young girls, and mothers. Gut wrenching and honest, these stories are presented in an attempt to bring about a deeper understanding of the plight of girls and women as we make our way in world that, for us, is hostile at its best and violent at its worst.
The Body Matters
by Marjorie Jolles
I was born in 1970, on the east coast of the US to politically liberal parents. When my mom brought home a copy of Free to Be… You and Me sometime around 1975, my world changed. This blockbuster record album, songbook (and later, TV special) was the brainchild of actress Marlo Thomas, a prominent feminist activist who wanted to bring a feminist message to children. With songs like “William Has a Doll,” and “It’s Alright to Cry,” Free to Be… You and Me sought to liberate children from gender stereotypes. In this post-civil rights, feminist era, it was popular to insist that gender is not a determinant of one’s life trajectory, that boys and girls could be free, simply, to be themselves—individuals gloriously unrestrained by the caste of gender. My sister and I sang its anthems at the top of our lungs, as if our lives depended on it—which, in a way, they did. Caught up in this same cultural moment, my elementary school teachers taught that who a person is “on the inside” is what counts. Judging someone by their outside—by their body—was politically incorrect. I reveled in this color-blind and gender-blind ethos.
And yet. By the time I was a teenager in the 1980s, this message just didn’t ring true anymore. All the popular girls were pretty, skinny, and white. Boys lusted after them. Teachers flirted with them. Power seemed to cling to their bodies, like a second skin. Fat kids were uncool, objects of cruelty. Disabled kids were invisible. When I lost ten pounds following a tonsillectomy and two weeks of barely eating, I got so much positive attention from the other girls, the boys, the teachers, and my family, and I could no longer pretend that who I was on the inside was all that mattered. My body mattered—a lot. Other people’s bodies did, too.
This insight will not be news to women reading this. Women have lifetimes of embodied experience that renders the body-blind message of Free to Be… You and Me more aspirational than actual. Women’s bodies are both private and public property; as of this writing, lawmakers across the US are passing legislation on all manner of reproductive rights that will steadily eliminate women’s bodily sovereignty. Women’s bodies are raped and assaulted with staggering frequency around the world. The cultural significance attached to women’s bodies can determine how much they get paid, or whether they can work at all. Women spend billions of dollars transforming their bodies to conform to standards of normalcy for reasons ranging from the cosmetic to the prosthetic, and they do this not because they are vain, frivolous consumers but because they know, intimately and for better or worse, just how much the body matters.
Women’s bodies aren’t only vulnerable to these assaults; women’s bodies are also resources of immense power. The body makes possible profound intimacies and passions, and, for some women, the body literally generates and sustains life.
That’s why, all these years later, although I am moved by the argument of Free to Be… You and Me (and the generations of feminists, like myself, who it spawned), I do not think it is intellectually or politically honest to claim that the body doesn’t matter, especially for people—like girls and women—whose identity is so overwhelmingly determined by their bodies. Denying the importance of the body, insisting that we must see past the body in order to see the self inside, just doesn’t seem to get the facts of embodiment right. Our experiences of embodiment, built up through millions of interactions, experiences of hyper-visibility, abject invisibility, power and vulnerability, all shape who that embodied self is. The self is not just some immaterial, inner being inside a body, but a profoundly material creature, existing on the surface of the body as well as in its depths. I take that fact seriously, and in so doing I take seriously the way women’s bodies matter crucially to all of us.
Marjorie Jolles is associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Roosevelt University. She’s the author of numerous articles and chapters on women, power, and culture, and the co-editor of Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style (SUNY Press, 2012). Reach her at email@example.com.