The Female Student-Athlete’s Body Image

One idea that we discussed in GSS101 and that I focused on in my book review was body image, and we particularly focused on this topic in week 4 when we discussed bodies, ads, and fat studies.  Although every week in this class definitely taught me something new and helped me realize my own ignorance in different topics, this week in particular was probably the most eye-opening for me.  I have always thought about how the media portrays unrealistic body images and ideals, and I have been aware of eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorders, and other problems that have to do with body image, but this week made me aware of so many more aspects that come into play when discussing body image.  For example, I had never before discussed or understood fat studies.  I had also never thought about many of the ideas Rosie Molinary discussed when she came to class and talked about her new book Beautiful You: A Daily Guide to Radical Self-Acceptance, such as her critique of deodorant and how companies make us believe that we need it.  Being exposed to these ideas and concepts questioning body norms made me contemplate every ad and body enhancement product I saw, including products that I would have never seen as being a body enhancement product (like deodorant) before taking this class.

Because I’m a student-athlete, I have seen intersections between these body image ideas and athletics, and having the knowledge I now have about body image has given me the ability to critique and have a different perspective on so many things that I would have never questioned before taking this class.  For example, almost everyone on my team seems to have some part of their body they are not okay with, or think there is something they can fix with enhancement products like deodorant, makeup, or hairstyling.  It also seems like we all think about what we eat way too much, wondering about the calories and fatty content that might add some unwanted curves, instead of thinking about how it might fuel our bodies for a grueling practice.  This discomfort with our bodies, of course, is not strictly limited to the girls or student-athletes, and many of these problems are consistent throughout the female population in America, and surely extends to more than females, for that matter.

However, in focusing on Davidson’s campus and the population in which I spend a lot of time because of my gender and being an athlete, I plan to address female student athletes’ body image at Davidson.  In order to do this and attempt to make a difference using the knowledge I have gained from GSS101, I will start out by sending an anonymous poll in order to ask questions and assess how female student-athletes at Davidson view themselves, and what body image issues are prevalent.  I can then use these answers to put together a presentation on body image for female student-athletes (similar to a previous presentation by a female Davidson swimmer called “Get Ovary It”) and discuss points such as those brought up in Beautiful You: A Daily Guide to Radical Self-Acceptance.  I can also use Socrative during the event in order to give everyone an opportunity to directly address and discuss problems.  I will likely start out doing this with my own team to provide a smaller environment so that everyone is comfortable talking about such intimate issues, and I can then attempt to expand these ideas and the presentation to help Davidson’s whole population of female student-athletes.

Breaking from the Confines of Normalization

“Never judge a book by its cover” – a seemingly simple phrase that surely every child has heard growing up, whether it is at school, at church, or at home.  This humble, concise phrase has taught children for decades that what is on the inside of a person is what truly matters, not what one sees in a person’s appearance.  However, this well-intentioned phrase is made up of multiple philosophical layers that address two parts of the self: the outer self and the inner self.  According to the common phrase, “Never judge a book by its cover,” only one of these entities of the self should be used as an indication of who one truly is; nevertheless, society also insists that individuals make the inner self known through changes in the body and one’s appearance.  In other words, according to society, the inner self is what truly matters, but this inner self can only be fully known and represented with changes to the outer self, or the physical body.  This idea of changing one’s body to represent the inner self is exactly what Cressida J. Heyes is challenging and objects to throughout her scholarly monograph Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies, along with numerous other topics and ideas that relate to the body and one’s identity.  She discusses the idea that importance should not be placed on the body as a representation of one’s inner self and challenges these Western norms and expectations of appearance.

Plastic surgery is a perfect example of society’s normative culture that places emphasis on the body as an expression of the inner self.  More and more “average” individuals go under the knife every year in hopes of creating the outer self they have always imagined reflects how they truly feel on the inside and how they wish others to see them.  Heyes addresses this increasingly popular phenomenon of bodily changes in varied examples of cosmetic surgery, from discussing breast augmentations and nose jobs to forms of weight loss surgery.  She analyzes individuals’ desire for these surgeries and talks about how these desires for surgeries (and the surgeries themselves) are normalizing the process of identity representation or even transformation through changes to the outer self.  As the title of the book implies, Heyes places focus on breaking from the confines of normalization and suggests how individuals can change themselves in order to discover one’s authentic self while avoiding conforming to what society expects one to be.  She explores this idea by objecting to two main claims: the claim that the inner self has a “unique authenticity; that to know oneself… is to know the nature of this individual” (3), and second, the claim that the authentic self “must be made visible through changes to the body” (4).  She is objecting to society’s expectations that one’s true self must be made known through physical appearance, especially because the Western world has expectations of how the body should appear, placing emphasis on changing the “flaws” of the body so that one can express one’s true and “flawless” self, which is in itself conforming to society’s expectations of perfection.  In discussion of these expectations, Heyes discusses the technologies that are now available that give individuals access to processes that will change the body in order to supposedly bridge the gap between one’s inner self and outer self, such as plastic surgery, but also mentions the complexities of these ideas in procedures such sexual reassignment surgeries.  She questions where the line exists between necessary medical intervention that is needed to restore normal function and bodily enhancement that is aimed at making the individual closer to perfection and beyond normal capacities.  In arguing that one should resist society’s emphasis on the body as a reflection of one’s authentic self, Heyes insists that docility must be resisted, and frequently employs the use of “docile bodies” in her objections to conformity and in her support of breaking out of the confines of normalization and into the liberation of freedom.  The overall aim of the book, which Heyes states in the introduction, is to “recognize the moments of truth in such assessments, while offering a framework for ethics, in which not moral judgment but askeses of freedom are the primary goal of analysis” (8), with askesis being defined as a Foucauldian term referring to the “forms of care of the self that underwrite our art of living” (8).  The “assessments” she refers to in this context are evaluating the body as an expression of an inner self.

In order to demonstrate her credibility and both academic and personal experience which give her valid insight into these philosophical ideas, Heyes explains her world travels, research, and academic experience which lead her to write the book in her acknowledgements section prior to the introduction.  She explains how her education attained at Oxford University (where she obtained her undergraduate degree) and McGill University (where she earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy), along with her experience as Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Alberta and travels around the world, have allowed her to see the issues she discusses from numerous perspectives, thus allowing her to come to a educated and valid conclusion herself about such matters.  The book is only one among many books she has published, along with numerous journal articles, book chapters, and reviews she has published both before this book and since then.

In order to incorporate this experience throughout the book and to more effectively provide her own insight into the arguments of other scholars and experiences, Heyes uses the first person perspective.  She specifically addresses this method in her introduction, stating that her “ethical commitment to situating the author as a partial, prejudiced, and invested theorist” is the motivation behind why she wrote the book “self-consciously” in the first person (13).  She discusses how she includes her own personal experiences and personal disclosure about her own embodied identity, despite its possible contradictory effects.  Heyes explains how publicly displaying personal experience can invite other individuals’ critique or disappointment, but she is willing to do this because of the possible positive ramifications, such as others being able to identify with her.  She also explains how she takes pride in her use of first person because her goal is also to stand in solidarity with others who are afraid to speak up and be wrongfully judged and misunderstood.  This courageous yet plausibly risky technique is in the end successful because it empowers both the author and the reader because of the boundaries broken and criticisms ignored.  This method perfectly displays Heyes’ intention to teach others how to break away from conformity and to discover how to freely express one’s inner self.  Personal experience is certainly not her only method of demonstrating the legitimacy of her research and exploring the material she covers.  Another very effective and substantially more valid manner she utilizes is analysis and incorporation of the work of numerous authors, including renowned philosophers.  As mentioned in the title of the monograph, Foucault is central to a lot of Heyes’ analysis, but she also includes the arguments of philosophers such as Charles Taylor, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Kathy Davis.

The book in its entirety contains numerous strengths, whether one examines the methods Heyes utilizes throughout the book, the content itself, the dense philosophical analysis, or simply the topics themselves.  I think the use of the first person is especially successful and is definitely a strength of the book.  The use of Foucauldian rhetoric and philosophical analysis are also especially effective; Heyes’ use of excerpts from Foucault’s famous works (and from numerous other philosophers and authors) gives the book a depth which simply would not be attainable without its presence and the critical analysis which Heyes provides.  These strengths of the book allow each page to contain such densities of ideas that it most definitely takes an educated and experienced reader to fully comprehend the concepts presented.

All of these immense strengths of the book leave few weaknesses; the only area which could be supported or explored a bit more thoroughly is intersectionality when it comes to the topics she discusses.  For example, Heyes does discuss the intersection between socioeconomic class or race and normalization of the body, but does so most specifically in chapter two: “Feminist Solidarity after Queer Theory: The Case of Transgender.”  Here she rejects the idea that there is no demand for transracial medical interference, citing examples of cosmetic modifications that are used with the intent to make identifying ethnic features less noticeable or different from the white majority, next mentioning how socioeconomic class can also be brought into this picture of changing the body in hopes of reducing telling signs of belonging to a lower class.  Heyes’ incorporation of these intersectional ideas in this chapter is exceptional and critical in fully exploring the norms she is rejecting, yet I think that she can incorporate this intersectionality for frequently throughout the book, such as in her chapter on weight loss and her experience with Weight WatchersÒ.  I am curious as to how race and socioeconomic class intersect with programs such as Weight WatchersÒ, so I think that there is a small weakness in Heyes’ exploration of intersectionality in some parts of the book.

In conclusion, Heyes’ analysis of and objection to normalization in her book Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies is rich in complexity and vastly intellectual in density, thus a highly-educated academic audience with experience in philosophy and sexuality studies would benefit most from reading this book.  Overall, the monograph has far more strengths than weaknesses, and Heyes’ exploration of cultural norms and bodily change through the use of her own experiences, along with her analysis of renowned philosophers’ views, causes her arguments to be highly credible and valid.  Her argument against focusing on appearance and her questioning of Western norms truly makes the reader think about the inner self and how one can be authentic without adhering to societal norms, which is an idea that can be universally beneficial to all who delve into the pages of this scholarly monograph.

Works Cited

Heyes, Cressida. Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Philosotoddler Questions Gender Stereotypes

“Do I wear blue because I’m a boy, or am I a boy because I wear blue?” asks a perplexed young toddler, dubbed the “philosotoddler,” in a meme on a Buzzfeed Pinterest post.  A seemingly simple question that, once pondered, actually conjures up all sorts of questions, conjectures, and arguments in today’s gender culture.  The post, originally intended to be nothing more than a joke about the confusing life of a toddler, has no philosophical meaning when looked at in its original context by an average viewer.  The intended audience for this post is the modern internet-user, in particular a Pinterest user, which means it is likely aimed more at younger audiences, especially teens and such who are frequently on Pinterest.  Because the post was originally meant to be simple entertainment, many people have surely seen this meme and have thought nothing of it.  Most peple who see this post have likely grown up in the heteronormative, gender stereotype-enforcing culture in which we live today, therefore they did not read deeper into the meaning of the picture and merely laughed at the “philosotoddler’s” deep inquiries about life.  However, when the post is viewed through the probing lens of gender and sexuality, the reader can truly realize a much deeper meaning hidden between the lines.

This perspective first reveals that, by merely making the assumption that blue is masculine, the post abides by the heteronormative trends that have consumed society for hundreds of years.  The meme addresses the role of gender stereotypes and the idea that certain qualities or accessories are so associated with a certain gender that they are seen as identifiers of that gender.  For example, a baby wearing blue is typically assumed to be a boy.  He is a boy because he has male genitalia, and he is expected to eventually exhibit the qualities that are typically seen as being masculine.  This progression is the logic most people use in society even today, because these are the ideas of heteronormativity.  The baby has already been assigned the gender “male” because of his biological sex.  Almost automatically, the baby, not even old enough to speak or express his/her own identity, already has expectations to fill and assumptions to meet because of gender stereotypes.  These concepts were not part of the original poster’s intentions in discerning meaning from the post, but these topics, heteronormativity and gender stereotypes, are the main focus of this meme when analyzed through the lens of gender and sexuality.

Looking at the original post makes it clear that Buzzfeed originally posted the meme as a joke; along with this meme, there are many others with the same picture, but with different captions: “How did she turn the spoon into an airplane?”  “How can you really know something if you haven’t put it in your mouth?”  The point of the other memes is merely to joke about the “deep questions” of being a toddler, yet this meme in particular means much more than that, and many Pinterest users have noticed this idea.  For example, another user pinned the meme, stating, “It’s a good question to ask.  Gender stereotypes are so big for young children.”  Because such basic assumptions are made about gender in this meme, it means much more than Buzzfeed originally intended, and has a greater significance than many of the other amusing memes with the confused toddler.

Looking deeper into the meaning of the post through analysis from the perspective of gender and sexuality, one can find meaning in the use of a baby as the one posing this meaningful question.  The baby has not yet had a chance to understand gender stereotypes, yet he is already being influenced and even defined by them.  The gender norms of society are being forced upon him and shaping his future, already affecting his learning of what gender is and what it means to be a boy.  The normative gender idea of dressing baby boys in blue is already affecting the baby, before he even has a say in what he wants. Because of the color blue, the baby already has expectations to be masculine and to fulfill the role of a boy in society.  Associations and assumptions such as these will only continue to happen and expand as he grows and begins to understand more about life.  Blue is a boy’s color.  Trucks and cars are toys boys play with.  Boys are tough and masculine.  It all begins with the color blue.

This tendency to enforce gender stereotypes also has a connection with following the heteronormative ideals of society.  For example, teaching young boys that they should be masculine goes along with the idea that they are not feminine.  Being feminine is for girls, and so is wearing pink, and being emotional and fragile.  Because of heteronormativity, one assumes that this boy, who will grow up to be masculine, will grow to like girls.  The baby is put in a categorical gender at a young age, and this gender gives him a natural, expected role in life.  He will follow the idea that girls have a feminine, even subordinate role in comparison to men, and he will grow up surrounded by the idea that romantic relations are most fitting for those of opposite sexes.  All of these assumptions and expectations are related to the heteronormative culture that begins at such a young age that it can affect the shaping of one’s future.

In conclusion, although this Pinterest meme was not originally intended to demonstrate such meaningful and controversial topics such as gender roles and heteronormativity, many users were able to see a deeper meaning in the post.  There is irony in the fact that the “philosotoddler,” meant to be nothing more than a joke, actually did end up posing more of a philosophical question about normative gender roles in today’s culture.  The meme can be seen as an implementation of our tendency to assume the roles of gender in society, and to make assumptions based on gender that cause expectations to be held throughout life.  Maybe a better question for the toddler to ask would be when will we stop adhering to gender roles and heteronormativity and allow kids to discover their own roles in life instead of having them assigned at birth?

Original Buzzfeed post:

Post from user about gender roles: