Body Parts

It is a hideously dreary weekend, and I am thinking about my body.

I love bodies. I love the myriad of ways they register the world, their exquisite vulnerabilities. I love the beauty created by bodies. I love to think about these things.

And, for the most part, I love to be aware of my own body. Perhaps I should turn that sentence around: I love to be aware of most parts of my body.

A few weeks ago, I visited my student health center for a check-up. First things first, blood pressure and weight. As I stepped onto the scale, I celebrated the small convenience of being able to keep on my shoes (this almost never happens). Then, I waited as the nurse pushed the metal arrows to the right and left. She kept pushing to the right. Further to the right always means fatter.

As I waited for the nurse practitioner to call me into an examination room, I fretted over the number the first nurse had recorded. I don’t own a scale, and I don’t remember whether this year’s number is larger than the one from last year. I am vaguely aware that, whatever the number, I would not be satisfied.

Finally I am summoned, and I head to one of the dingy, dinky little rooms to meet with the nurse practitioner. I ask her about my weight, and she squints at the computer. “Oh,” she says. “Mmm.”

Shit.

She turns to me with a look of pity that would seem more suitable if she were about to issue a cancer diagnosis. According to the hallowed and revered BMI index, I have edged into the “overweight zone.” “It’s not that you have a weight PROBLEM,” she assures me. “You’re just overweight.”

I sit with this information for a moment and am silent. The nurse wants to be helpful. “Would you like to make an appointment with a nutrition counselor?” she asks, eagerly handing me brochures. I feign appreciation and stuff the brochures in my bag. I go home. I curl up in bed, cry, and feel like a wad of wet dough. Later that night, I realize that I am actually fortunate because I am twenty-eight, and this is the first time–to my knowledge–that I have ever been identified by someone as “overweight.”

I don’t care what percentage of people would agree with that nurse practitioner – or rather, with the BMI chart upon which she based her own assessment. I only know that I hate how we make each other feel about our bodies – how we inhibit each other’s ability to love our flesh. And I’m sick of women being made to feel as if we take up too much space. We diminish ourselves in the name of Health. Really, we are only performing expectations that are utter impossibilities.

This week a friend drew my attention to the “No Makeup Selfie” campaign that has been making the rounds on social media. She participated and asked me to do the same. I had just changed my Facebook profile picture to one of the only close ups of my face that I do not hate. The friend who took the picture is a professional photographer, and I sure as hell am wearing makeup. I have begun to pride myself on my creativity in the cosmetic arts and tell myself that I am finding new ways to “enhance” my facial features. This is probably mostly bullshit.

I support my friend for participating in the campaign and tell her she looks beautiful because she does and she is. But for a few days, I refrain, cowardly. One evening I take a photo of myself without makeup, but think that posting it publicly would make me nauseous. The next morning I try again. Without looking too hard at the picture, I post it to Facebook.

I hate that photo of me so much that I can hardly bear the sight of it. I endure it only to respond to the comments of wonderful friends who say supportive, kind things. But I’m still glad that I took the photo, and that it is there. I think it is good for me to sit with the discomfort of having broadcasted an image of myself unadorned. Still, I don’t know that I could do it again.

Today I am feeling the heaviness that comes of a weekend spent eating appetizers at a conference (free food means not paying for groceries, after all). I will go to the gym tomorrow morning and tell myself that the most important reason for doing so is to “feel good.” Really, I want to be in shape when my family sees me in my wedding dress in June. I don’t want my body to take up too much space when I walk down the aisle. I’m doing this for all of the wrong reasons, but I keep hoping that will change.

I keep hoping that the next time I have the energy to write about my feminist politics, that the energy will derive from a better ability to separate myself from gendered social expectations. Today is not one of those days, but it will come. I am determined for it to come.

This is the Academia I Want

This evening, I read a wonderful blog post called “It’s Not on the Syllabus: Cultivating Collegiality as a Graduate Student.” If you’re an academic or considering pursuing an academic life, I strongly urge you to read it. The author is Melissa Ridley Elmes, a doctoral student in English and Women’s and Gender Studies.

(Link: http://melissaridleyelmes.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/its-not-on-the-syllabus-cultivating-collegiality-as-a-graduate-student/)

Ridley Elmes makes a number of brilliant remarks over the course of her piece, but one that really sticks is her assertion that academic conferences should be safe spaces. I want to take this even further and argue that academia should, in all of its different facets, be a safe space. I do not, of course, mean that academia should cease to be a venue for provocation, intellectual stimulation, and debate. But it should be a space where we can share–and challenge–ideas without diminishing one another.

As is probably evident by the above, Ridley Elmes has inspired me to do a bit of thinking about the academic world that I would like to see. I pointedly do not refer to this as my “ideal” academia. All that I want–and hope for–is attainable if we navigate the field with empathy and intellectual generosity as guiding principles.

So, without further ado, here are some key aspects of The Academia I Want:

1. I want an academia where expressing vulnerability does not come at the cost of seeming less professional or competent. (I wrote about this topic briefly in my BWD post: https://positiveandpromise.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/the-bwd/)

2. I want an academia where we are encouraged–and encourage each other–to live varied and full lives.

3. As such, I want an academia where we support parents–especially mothers–who are striving to both raise a family and succeed in the field.

4. I want an academia that is aware, as Ian McEwan writes in Atonement, that we are all every bit as real as each another. Behind a professional demeanor there is always, always a vibrant and complex inner life. Behind a professional demeanor there is often suffering. When we remember these things, I believe that we are kinder to one another.

5. I want an academia that WANTS to be guided by kindness.

6. I want an academia where we discuss our ideas more than we discuss departmental gossip or politics.

7. I want an academia where the humanities are valued and supported financially. (Okay, here I might be drifting into idealism…unfortunately.)

8. I want an academia where our pedagogy is shaped by feminism.

9. Hell, I want a feminist, sex-positive, queer-friendly, diverse academia.

10. I want an academia where we are comfortable sharing in the successes of others because we are not encouraged, however implicitly, to compare ourselves to one another.

11. I want an academia that is always mindful of the ways it can shape the world at large and eager to do exactly that. We can all of us be activists – and we should be.

In composing this list, I do not mean to say that all of these things are currently nonexistent in the academic world. I am fortunate to know so many kind-hearted and intellectually generous people, both within and outside of my field. I know people who fight actively for animal rights, and others who inspire me as working mothers. I am a fortunate woman if I can make a career in a field where so many brilliant, warm, and charitable people exist.

But we can do better. I can do better. And as I work on my dissertation and think more concretely about the sort of life I want as a professional–a life that includes being a mother and a creative writer as well as an academic–I feel a greater urgency to help reshape academia’s less collegial dimensions. It is doable, of that I am certain. I hope that readers will respond in the comments with their thoughts on this topic. What sort of academia do you want?

Why I Like to Teach Sex

This past week, Paul showed a room of graduate students and professors just how foxy Harvey Keitel is in the sack.

Disambiguation: Paul was a panelist for a workshop on how to teach film in literature courses. He delivered a mini-presentation on how to analyze a scene, focusing particularly on sound and music. He chose, as his sample, a scene from Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” which is, let me tell you, one of the most exquisite films that I have ever seen. It is also the only film that, to my knowledge, features Harvey Keitel as an explicit object of desire. When we see Harvey (or rather, when you see Harvey, because I probably cannot sit through any of his other, much more violent, films), it tends to be in this sort of context:

Image taken from badassdigest.com

In “The Piano,” Harvey Keitel’s character has also adorned himself with tattoos, but they are limited to his face and signify his assimilation into the tribal communities of 19th Century New Zealand. Whether or not said tattoos work for him would likely generate some debate. But, in any case, they seem to work for one of the film’s female characters, because she falls deeply in love with him. And after these characters express their mutual feelings, they engage in a rather lengthy and graphic bout of love-making. This is the scene that Paul showed us as part of his presentation. Nervous laughter ensued.

A number of factors contributed to the giggles that rippled through the audience. First, Paul warned that the scene includes partial nudity, and there is simply nothing “partial” about it – unless, of course, anything less than full-frontal shots of genitalia is, in your opinion, child’s play. That said, taking into consideration that we do not see the women from the front, and assuming Harvey is relatively endowed, I would put the extent of the nudity in this scene at about 95 percent. Perhaps if we had only caught a quick glimpse of the love-making, then the effect would not have been so dramatic. But oh, how the camera lingers. We see caresses. We see smoochies. We see Harvey mount and penetrate with a determined thrust. And all the while, the music is gorgeous!

Paul did, ultimately, cut short the viewing, having forgotten just how long we are privy to the lovers bumping uglies. And, honestly, it is a shame that he felt that compulsion, however understandable it was. Jokes aside, the scene was perfect for the point Paul wanted to convey to us, and it productively accompanied his brilliant feminist analysis (I won’t divulge said analysis to you because I hope he publishes it someday).  Afterwards, my friend and colleague, Katie Stanutz, the organizer of these teaching workshops, joked that Paul was responsible for the first nudity to make its way into the series. She also hatched what I think is a brilliant idea for another workshop: how to teach controversial material. After the panel, a few of us, including Katie, began to talk about how presenting or discussing explicit material is always a challenge. It also can have varying–sometimes difficult–effects on the space of a classroom or lecture hall. Of course, everyone who attended this workshop loves Paul and appreciated precisely why he had shown us that film clip. But the affect of amused discomfort was palpable as we gradually recognized that this was a long scene of no-holds-barred sex – one that we were watching in public, amongst professional colleagues. Afterwards we realized that this was one of those “teaching moments” to which we all refer (sometimes with a dollop of sarcasm).

I am by no means immune to the impacts of encountering controversial material, whatever the nature of its content. However, I also do not shy away from teaching it. Because my research interests include human sexuality, the topic tends to make its way into just about any course I teach, and in a variety of manifestations. I have incorporated “The Piano” into a women’s literature class before (with Paul’s help, I should add). This semester, in my Introduction to LGBT Literatures class, I will teach poetry by the brilliant Essex Hemphill. When I teach within my comfort zone, i.e. the Victorian period, I assign Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick, and challenge my students to think about the ways writers articulated their erotic desires in a climate that was far more conservative. It is especially important to me to teach women’s sexuality because of the ways it has been–and continues to be–scrutinized, fetishized, and exploited, both within literature and outside of it. Some of my very favorite lines of poetry–lines that strengthen me whenever I feel judged by others–are from Victorian poet Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway.” Webster’s poem imagines the interiority of a kept woman struggling with her “fall” from sexual propriety while still asserting her self-worth:  “I have looked coolly on my what and why / And I accept myself.” Sometimes it is nearly impossible for me to speak those words aloud without getting choked up.

My students generally come to know me as a teacher who will “go there.” I am comfortable with this, both because I try to make those moments productive and because I think it is critical TO go “there” — in other words, to the sex. We see evidence every day that society still does not know what to do with sexuality. However often we read humor pieces about the trials and tribulations of forgetting your vibrator when you visit your parents, talking sex tends to make us nervous unless we do it in a private setting. I recognize that everyone has limits to what s/he wants to discuss, and I am by no means arguing that we should all broadcast our sex lives, heedless of our audiences. Despite being a very sex-positive person, there is a great deal–although perhaps it does not always seem like it–that I prefer to keep to myself. And there are details about my life that others simply need not know. But as an instructor, I believe in challenging my students to question the boundaries that shape their comfort zones. Discomfort can be one of the most productive things we feel, so long as we are willing to reflect on what has generated it. I want my students to read material that makes them uncomfortable. Doing so enables us to have vibrant and healthy discussions about what that discomfort means – what social or institutional forces influence and perpetuate it.

As long as we continue to tiptoe around discussions of sex in the abstract, we will not be capable of fully facing the social problems that derive from sexual anxieties. For instance, until we can recognize the validity of sex workers, it will be one more factor that contributes to a culture of slut-shaming. So too, will be the systemic silencing and blaming of sexual assault victims, many of whom are women. For as long as we fetishize and exploit same-sex eroticism, queer people will not be encouraged to regard their love as valid and beautiful, just as all love is. (For some of the latest in outrageous lesbian fetishization, see Shakira’s latest music video. My opinion of her has lowered considerably: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3mP3mJDL2k. And no, Macklemore does not make it all better.) I could go on at length, and it would just depress us all. It’s Friday, so I don’t want to do that.

But there is so much that we need to do. We need to talk with our students about the line between the pornographic and the erotic, and why that matters (see Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic” if you want to do a little outside reading that will inspire you to start a revolution). We need to create supportive and generative spaces where words like “vagina” and “aroused” don’t get caught in our students’ throats as they attempt to make points about the day’s reading. We need to teach tolerance for sexuality and, in so doing, emphasize the difference between choosing to maintain one’s privacy and feeling compelled to hide a fundamental part of oneself.

When I teach sexually explicit material, I hope that I am able to impart some of these lessons — or, at least, to create a pedagogical climate conducive to these conversations. Because, while I want to challenge my students (and myself, too), I always, always want them to feel safe.

And if all else fails, I guess I can just show my students a naked, tattooed Harvey Keitel over, and over, and over again. (Thanks, Paul!)