From Theory to Praxis: High School Outreach Program

Since I have not taken a gender and sexuality studies class before this semester, most of the concepts we discussed in class and from the readings were very new to me. This class has truly allowed me to broaden my horizons of how I view the world and society. Before this semester, I was only aware of gender and sexuality as binaries, but I now see how society has constructed them to be viewed this way. As we began discussing new topics in depth, I started to think about my education regarding gender and sexuality, or lack thereof, prior to this class. In middle school, I had the standard health and sex education classes, but we mostly touched on only the biological aspects of each rather than the emotional and psychological aspects. In high school, we did not have any type of sex education; in fact, it seemed forbidden to discuss any topics regarding gender and sexuality. However, this class has allowed me to understand how important and crucial it is to have open dialogue about these topics in everyday life. Therefore, for my theory to praxis final project I set out to open this dialogue in high schools in the Charlotte area.

As a member of Rape Awareness Committee, I volunteered to be in charge of our High School Outreach Program. In the beginning, I did it purely because I was from the Charlotte area so I had contacts at many local high schools, but as the semester went on, I realized how much of an impact we could truly make with this program due to the lack of health and sex education in the local high schools. Therefore, I began researching other sex education programs, narrowing down what exactly I wanted to focus on, and how we wanted to convey our message. After meeting with Georgia Ringle and Ashley Fry, I decided to focus on consent and positive and healthy relationships as these topics are pertinent and rarely discussed in schools. We found that most schools’ sex education programs are very abstinence-based so many students have never discussed these topics and a strong stigma surrounds conversation of these topics.

In working with the rest of my committee, we put together a presentation that focused on opening a discussion with students based on the norm of reciprocity: the more open and honest we are with them, the more open they will hopefully be with us. We begin our presentation by showing a video of Davidson students discussing key aspects of positive and healthy relationships and giving examples of personal sexual experiences where their knowledge of consent and choice was important. Following this video, we share why we personally are each here giving this presentation and a little bit about our own sexual identity and experiences. We hope that our willingness to share our beliefs and experiences will open a line of communication for the students to discuss their personal experiences and ask questions. In order to further engage the students and for us to frame the conversation towards the audience, we then have them fill out a series of anonymous questions regarding gender and sexual identity as well as personal experiences. This then leads us into our presentation about consent and healthy relationships. In addition to sharing definitions and characteristics of each, we ask students to share their beliefs and knowledge about each topic. We then give the students hypothetical situations and ask them what they would do in each case. One thing we want to emphasize is that there is more than one right way to handle any of these situations; each person will probably handle them a little bit differently. After hearing the students share their opinions on each situation, we each give our own answer and explanation for how we would potentially handle it.  We conclude our presentation by allowing everyone to write down questions anonymously on note cards, which we then read aloud and answer to the best of our ability for the group.

Overall, we have given two presentations so far and have multiple scheduled for the spring. Just from the two presentations we have given, I have been able to see how much of an impact we can have. In one of our presentations to seventh and eighth grade girls at Circle de Luz, several of the girls were already sexually active, but were unaware of the meaning of the words consent and contraception. Though this was highly concerning in the moment, by the end of the presentation, they were all confident in their own ability to ask for and give consent, aware of their choice, and knew to always use protection. Personally, the impact we were able to make from this one presentation was worth all the time and effort I put into creating this program. However, I am looking forward to our presentations in the spring and to seeing the further impact we can make the community.

Beyond Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law

“A woman married to a man for nine months is entitled to Social Security survivor’s benefits when he dies; a woman living for nineteen years with a man or woman to whom she is not married receives nothing.”[1] The debate over marriage equality for same-sex couples was one that took over the country’s social and political agenda in the early 2000’s. Nancy Polikoff’s Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage challenges this agenda by asking both straights and gays alike to consider a broader definition of what constitutes a family and how this structure should be protected under the law. Those protected by the institution of marriage have privileged status in regards to tax benefits, estate benefits, government benefits, employment benefits, medical benefits, and death benefits among others. Polikoff calls for a revamping of family law; one that takes into consideration the changing nature of family units while also deemphasizing the status of marriage in our society.

Nancy Polikoff is a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law. She teaches Family Law and a seminar on Children of LGBT Parents and has been writing about, litigating about, and speaking about cases involving LGBT families for the past thirty years. Her accomplishments include co-founding the Washington, DC Feminist Law Collective, supervising family law programs at the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, and co-authoring one of the first law review articles on the custody rights of lesbian mothers. Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage is Polikoff’s first book. She has a daughter in her twenties and lives with her partner in Washington, DC.

The first half of the Beyond Marriage gives the reader historical context as to how we got to the position we are in with marriage today. It begins with the advances made by the second-wave feminist movement in the context of marriage, and then describes how those advances have been attacked since the 1970s by the religious right. Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem and others are cited in this section, along with groundbreaking legislature like Title IX. From there, she moves into the gay rights movement and the intersection of lesbianism and feminism. Eventually she delves into the marriage movement of the conservative right and the how the push for preserving marriage as an institution for heterosexual couples strengthened marriage’s societal status. She then brings the reader to the contemporary fight for marriage equality, the most thorough part of the first half of the monograph.

Generally, there are two dominant perspectives in the contemporary marriage debate. First, there are those who support the institution of marriage and believe that opening it up to non-heterosexual couples will undermine social structure. Second, there are those who support equal access to marriage for LGBT individuals since they deserve the same access to benefits as married heterosexual couples. Throughout the book, Polikoff makes reference to groups on both sides of the argument. Frequently mentioned supporters of the marriage movement include The Institute for American Values, the Alliance Defense Fund, and the Liberty Counsel. Those often mentioned on the side of marriage equality include Lambda Legal, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. All of these groups fight for legislation supporting their side of the argument or represent individuals in relevant court cases. Polikoff separates herself from these prominent groups by taking a third stance. She questions the legitimacy of marriage as the necessary qualification for receiving legal benefits and questions whether it is fair to exclude so many other family forms by limiting such benefits. This allows her to reframe the debate over marriage by making the point that the benefits associated with marriage are not inherent, they have been constructed over time and have increasingly drawn a line between families formed through marriage and families formed through other means. By fighting for the right to marriage for LGBT couples, dominant organizations like the Human Rights Campaign are reinforcing the place of marriage in our society as cultural institution that unfairly awards rights to the married and leaves those who are unmarried out to dry. She enforces the argument that marriage is outdated and the benefits that accompany it were developed decades ago when having sex outside of marriage was taboo, illegitimate children were considered outcasts, and marriage had gender roles legally entwined within it. Through the examination of historical movements, she determines that people have changed the way that they view and structure their lives and the current marriage equality movement does not reflect this change.

The second half of the book is dedicated to describing specific aspects of her proposed approach, called “valuing all families,” to make marriage matter less. The most important aspect of this approach is identifying the purpose of specific laws that currently grant marriage-specific legal consequences. By understanding the specific objectives of these laws, relationships can be identified that would further the law’s objective without creating a specific special status for married people. In regards to this approach, she addresses health care, medical leave, medical care, domestic partner benefits, the dissolution of relationships, death, and economic compensation. Polikoff argues that by taking this approach, our society can move more towards a legal system based on the nature of care and dependency in relationships, not just the relationship’s specific name. Her solutions are not only for same-sex couples, they are also for people non-conjugal relationships, like unmarried elderly people, caregivers and the people they help, or friends living together. For instance, through this approach she examines the current family and medical leave practices of businesses across the country, supported by anecdotes of those who were not allowed such leave to care for an ill family member. Many medical leave policies are limited to caring for a spouse or child with serious illness and are often unpaid. Polikoff proposes support of the “Healthy Families Act,” a bill that provides seven days of paid leave per year “to care for a child, a parent, a spouse, or any other individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.”[2] This kind of reform breaks down barriers and helps to redefine the law’s narrow definitions of family that do not accurately reflect today’s society.

Polikoff’s breadth of knowledge of her field is evident as she provides a comprehensive overview of legal history as it applies to social movements throughout the decades. This method is extremely effective in giving the reader context into the foundational aspects of marriage and establishing the true dividing line that it has become. By making interdisciplinary links through feminism, sexual liberation, class, and justice, her argument is multidimensional and looks at marriage through the views of different legal lenses. The inclusion of a significant amount of laws and court cases is appropriate since the nature of her “valuing all families” solution focuses on reforming these laws. In contrast to the formality of the included law, Polikoff includes many anecdotes and case studies throughout the monograph to explain how the law has failed certain families because of the marriage dividing line. These short stories help to break up the dense law material and make it easy to envision why her reform needs to be implemented in real world situations.

Although at first the idea of diminishing and eventually removing the significance of marriage in a society may seem radical to the general population, Polikoff’s presentation of her argument makes it seem truly possible and reasonable. She provides concrete solutions for reforming laws, many based at the state and local level, and also provides several examples of places where similar laws have been successfully enacted. Even with the abundance of case law, the Beyond Marriage is very much readable by those without Polikoff’s extensive background. This monograph is meant to reach a broad audience due to its increasing relevance, however, due to its connectedness with the marriage equality movement and gay rights, the audience becomes more limited.

Polikoff reinforces in Beyond Marriage that people should have the choice to marry based on their individual beliefs, whether they be cultural, spiritual, or religions in nature. It should not be a choice that people are forced into to obtain unique legal benefits that are specific only to marriage. The end goal of her efforts is a system in which marriage is not the rigid dividing line between who is in and who is out regarding family law, through her “valuing all families” approach. This monograph is a valuable resource for people in all family structures and can help our society move towards a legal system that helps improve the lives of all individuals and families.

Works Cited

Polikoff, Nancy D. Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.

[1] Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), Cover page.

[2] Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 172.

Mary Edmonia Lewis and Art Historian’s Interpretation of Non-White, Non-Male Artists

In the history of art, white men stand above the rest. In most of human history, institutions were not set up to allow anyone but a white male­­ to succeed in art. The art world is stacked in their favor. In addition, a lack of resources and acknowledgment for women and people of color has led to an art historical timeline filled with white males. Therefore, we still honor the feats of the white male. To progress away from inequity, the field is now turning to look at the work of those less recognized. Yet how can art historians do this without looking at the artist in question as only an ‘other’, a member of a minority group, or an exception? Kirsten Pai Buick’s Child of the Fire attempts to answer the question of revisiting art history’s past by looking at artist Mary Edmonia Lewis. By critiquing the way past historians have viewed Lewis as only either Black, Indian, or female, Buick illuminates the flaws in art history’s assessment of those who are not white males.

The field of art history has a limited scope. There is a lack of research on diverse artists. In the past couple of decades, research has expanded because historians are recognizing artists not originally seen as worthy (a white male). However, the new research tends to reduce the artist to their gender or race. Reduction of an artist extrapolates their art into only their ideological struggle. Kirsten Pai Buick utilizes the story of Mary Edmonia Lewis to examine an understudied artist and consciously works against reducing her to an ideology. Lewis was a late 19th century artist who achieved moderate fame in her lifetime through sculptural work. Buick’s main interest in Lewis is her self-proclaimed identification as a black and Native American woman. Lewis proclaimed herself to be 50% Native American but was actually less than 20%. Combined with her inclusion of African American figures in her work, Buick recognized that Lewis leaned into her ideologies. Buick interprets Lewis’s ownership as her accepting both her own ideologies and the popular titles she was given in the late 1800s as the first great African American and Indian artist. Since Lewis began in the field of art, her ownership of ideologies has affected how she has been assessed as an artist. Buick presents two arguments around how Lewis’s ideologies have affected her. First, Buick explains how she will assess Lewis through her career in order to move discussion away from “ideological baggage” and a focus on Lewis’s life (Buick 2). Evaluating Lewis through her career opens the path for her to be seen as an artist rather than an ideology. Buick continues with her second argument. Using Lewis as a jumping off point, Buick reveals that America still has a “Negro Problem and an Indian Problem and a Women Question” that are all “deeply embedded” in art history (xviii). Buick wields examples of Lewis being seen through racial lenses to explain her two arguments; Lewis had a career, not a life of ideologies, and art history has issues around non-white, non-male artists.

Child of the Fire is the only book that addresses Mary Edmonia Lewis alone and makes an effort to view her in a non-traditional art historical context. Buick is currently an associate art history professor at University of New Mexico. There she continues research in her fields of interest including art of the Americas and representations of the land, African American art, the impact of gender and race in art history, and the history of women as art patrons and collectors. Her motivation to bring themes of intersectionality into art history is still a rare one. Her forthcoming book, White Skins, White Mask: The Performance of Race in British Colonial Portraits moves in a different direction by addressing race head on. A winner of the Driskell Prize, an award to honor contributions to the field of art of the African Diaspora, Buick already has a strong base for her future works.

Buick’s methodology for an exploration of Lewis isn’t a typical one. Since Buick is addressing two arguments; how Lewis has been studied previously and how that relates to art history in total, her main sources are published works from other art historians. While most biographers and art historians focus on primary sources as their forms of evidence to assess an artist, Buick employs other art historian’s works more than sources from the end of the 19th century. Buick acts as a historiographer. She cites works ranging from 1970 to 2000, encapsulating the contemporary viewpoint of Lewis and female artists of color. Using published works that had already considered Lewis by other art historians enables Buick a broader scope. Buick can evaluate art historian’s take on a non-white non-male artist instead of writing a strict biography on Lewis. The use of some primary sources and lots of art historian’s sources around Lewis led Buick to explain the two arguments she posed.

One of the strongest points Buick makes is in regard to how Lewis’s blackness has impeded on her valid assessment as an artist. Buick delves into what she calls the “Negro Problem” of art history (32). She argues an assessment of a black artist is tautological, meaning black artists fall into a pattern of redundancy. One basis of art history is the “maintenance of an uninflected, normalized notion of ‘whiteness’”, a specific white framework that has been engrained into the idea of good art (32). This causes black artists to “affirm and replicate” their difference as ‘blackness’, not as a way to react against this framework, but simply because they do not fit into it (32). Because they are forced in a position of blackness, a black artist is only seen as their identity. The purpose of their art is not important, as the tautological state of a black artist means their work is only their race. Buick brings this back to Lewis when looking at how art historian David C. Driskell interpreted her art. In 1976, Driskell claimed Lewis felt the need to use racial themes because she wanted to show the hatred her father’s race endured. Driskell dismisses the various work Lewis did by putting it under a racial theme umbrella as well as makes up an idea about Lewis’s relationship with her father and race that was never shown in primary evidence. In response Buick states, “It is as if racism were the only experience that shaped her identity and thus the only force that inspired her art” (33). Buick illuminates the tautology of Lewis’s identity makes her art only ‘blackness’. She continues stating that perspectives like Driskell’s make Lewis a “perpetual outsider” to white culture, and therefore good art (33). In opposition to Driskell and the popular stance he stands for, Buick provides a perspective of agency for Lewis. Rather than racial tautology, Lewis’s work sprang from a “negotiated identity” of race, gender, and America itself (35). Her art was more than self-portraiture, but a combination of the various communities she was involved in, and a contribution to the American art scene of her time.

Buick builds on her assessment of the problem of blackness in art history by looking at another artist of the late 19th century, Robert Duncanson. Duncanson, a landscapist, and Lewis are both subject to essentialism in interpretations of their work. Joseph D. Ketner, one of Duncanson’s biographers, claimed that the artist appropriated the landscape to his cultural identity and used it to communicate. In short, Ketner argues the rocks, trees, and other aspects of a Duncanson landscape were the artist’s “metaphors for emancipation and an essential blackness” and a way to communicate art to the African American community (36). There is no evidence that Duncanson intended his landscapes to be interpreted this way. While Duncanson’s work has been reinterpreted by other art historians for what it is, (a landscape), Lewis’s hasn’t. The distinction between the two artists is Lewis provides the black (and Indian) subject in her sculptures, unlike Duncanson, and has therefore always been subject to the essentialism Ketner used against Duncanson. Her work is inherently tautological; the only interpretation art historians present is a racial one. Buick exposes the tautology of race in evaluations of Lewis as an artist, and continues to expand the racial lens to include a Native American one.

An area that could have been explored further in Child of Fire is Lewis’s identity as a woman. Buick also fails to expose how women and women of color’s art has been interpreted in the same way she does for artists of color. A few arguments surrounding gender were made, most specifically with regard to Lewis’s representation of Native American women. Buick notes that Lewis, with her depiction of the story of Hiawatha, attempted to sculpt an ethnographically correct Native American for the first time in recorded art history (132). Up until Lewis, depictions of Indian women had been whitewashed or shown in submissive positions to white males. In the Victorian period, this subtle move broke ground into “who could and could not be considered a woman” in the culture and art (132). However, there Buick ends her discussion on Lewis as a gendered figure. Since the structure of the book was set up with one chapter focused on Lewis as a black subject and two chapters on her as a Native American subject, I suggest that another chapter would have been beneficial. Another chapter could address what it means for Lewis to be assessed as a woman, her time living in Rome with an expat group of gender and sexual fluid women, or her status within racial communities as a woman. A chapter on Lewis’s gender ideology would have answered questions I still have for Buick. Although Buick includes gender focused authors, spending more time in her analysis of Lewis and bringing in feminist art historians such as Linda Nochlin could have balanced intersectionality of Mary Edmonia Lewis.

Child of Fire is at the forefront of progression in art history. For too long the field has been dominated by white males in many ways. There have been few full investigations into artists of different ideologies, and of those assessments most have reduced the artist to a race or gender. Kirsten Pai Buick breaks new ground with her study of Mary Edmonia Lewis. Buick not only evaluates Lewis through her career and not her ideological story, but lays down evidence of the reduction of Lewis’s career by past art historians, and takes on the problems surrounding non-white, non-male artists in art history. This book provides an excellent example for those in the field of what it means to reexamine the artists of history, acknowledge greats of the past, but move forward with artists of different gender and race in a productive way.

 

Bibliography

Buick, Kirsten Pai. Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject. Duke University Press, 2010.

“Kirsten Buick.” University of New Mexico: Faculty. Accessed October 24, 2016. http://art.unm.edu/kirsten-buick/.

 

 

Alternate Grant Proposal Assignment: Virginity as a Social Construct Poster at 1972 Sex Positivity Fair

As an alternative to the Grant Proposal assignment, Caroline Okel, Vance Graves, Felicia Zi, and Collin Epstein created a poster for the Sex Positivity Fair hosted by 1972, ‘a group at Davidson College focused on gender expression on campus and issues affecting women’, according to their Facebook page. We chose to examine virginity as a social construct, hoping to start a conversation with attendees at the fair about how they experience virginity. We researched information on four topics related to virginity that caught our interest, and provided sticky notes and pens so that those who came to the fair could respond to our poster by adding their thoughts to it.

 

One of the topics that we were interested in exploring for our poster was the comparison between the expectation that people have for losing their virginity versus the experience that they actually have. As Hanne Blank describes in her book Virgin: The Untouched History, we are able to define virginity without describing its loss. She recognizes that we “speak of virginity loss rather than virginity itself… [because] virginity is because it ends” (Blank 96-97). Their definitely is a fascination with the topic of “the first time,” especially in a college setting, but we have noticed that for most people we know, the first time was not all what it is cracked up to be. For example, in Laura M. Carpenter’s Virginity Loss, she interviews people about their stories of losing their virginity. As Bryan Meyers summarizes in her book, “It was just so unbelievable that this, like, this thing you talk about your life is actually happening. And honestly, I think that… it’s not as, like, as mind-blowing as you expect it to be” (Carpenter 72). Therefore, we asked individuals to answer questions about their expectations that they have for their first time or that they had prior to their first time. We found that those who had not lost their virginity expressed desire for a first time with someone they loved and that they feel comfortable with. When actually discussing the first time, the sticky notes expressed more of a feeling of less than ideal conditions such as disappointment, a lack of feeling changed by the experience, and awkwardness. One person simply answered “NO” when asked if it met their expectations. This portion aimed to shed light on the fact that the first time may not be a romantic, life-changing moment like the virginity loss scenes portrayed in popular movies like Titanic and The Notebook and that this is perfectly okay.

 

A topic that was initially a starting point for conversation in our group was the definition of virginity. We were interested in social and cultural constructions of virginity, and the myth of the hymen was something we discussed and included in our poster, with the main takeaway being that no medical definition exists for what constitutes virginity. One of the open-ended questions we asked on the poster read, “How do you define virginity?” People posted a variety of answers, demonstrating that different individuals defined virginity differently, and that virginity had a different value for every individual. An answer that we found particularly striking was, “IT ISN’T REAL.”  Our group also discussed stigmas and double standards surrounding the idea of virginity, such as social perceptions of male versus female virginities. We included a few memes from pop culture films to demonstrate these double standards, and people seemed to find them not only amusing, but relatable. A female responded to the question, “How did your parents influence your views?” with, “My parents taught me that virginity is purity. I should wait until marriage.” Another female responded with, “Same!”, demonstrating that these gendered perceptions still exist in today’s society. Given that most of the posts were anonymous, it was difficult to find connections between people’s answers and their gender, but the clear variety of answers demonstrated that virginity meant something different for everyone. Ultimately, our group was pleasantly surprised with the amount of people willing and eager to participate in the open-ended questions. It was interesting to generate conversation about a topic that is not normally discussed in everyday conversation and read what people had to say about it.

 

Another one of the topics we researched for our poster on virginity as a social construct is virginity in the LGBT* Community. We examined how views towards virginity differ between the straight and LGBT* communities. For example, it is often debated as to whether or not lesbian women can actually lose their virginities. This belief stems from the idea that one cannot have sex without the involvement of a penis. In order to change how we look at virginity in the LGBT* community, we need to change how we look at sex. Perhaps we, as a society, view things from a very heteronormative viewpoint. This is due to compulsory heterosexuality, a concept put forth by Adrienne Rich in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980). With this concept, it is believed that for most people, straight is the default sexuality. This view is very constricting when it comes to looking at how we view sex, and therefore the construct of virginity. Because we asked questions about what people believe to be sex, it was interesting to see whether or not Davidson students would comply with compulsory heterosexuality when answering questions. Interestingly enough, many of the students who answered questions about what they believe sex to be, left gender out of their answer, like when one student wrote that, “Sex is when two or more people have intimate relations with their sexual organs.” Another student just defined sex as, “when all parties orgasm.” It appears that these students took away something from our poster, or perhaps already came with thought that that when we discuss sex, we need to be more inclusive of other sexual orientations and gender identity.

 

           We also explored historical and cultural representations of virginity in our poster. Historically, virgins have been represented in Western cultures in a series of narrow roles: women as pillars of virtue, men as pathetic or eccentric, and both as holy or deified. Cultural images of virgins contribute to what Barbara Risman refers to as “gender as structure” at the “interactional level of analysis: cultural expectations” in her essay Gender as Structure. These images are crucially dependent on a very heteronormative definition and expectation of gender.

       Female virgins in history are usually portrayed as exceptionally virtuous, usually because of their virgin status (ex: Queen Elizabeth I). Culturally, virginal leaders garnered more respect as virgins, perhaps because of their apparent rejection of men.

        On the other hand, men are typically portrayed as pathetic losers (ex: Steve Carrell in the 40-Year-Old-Virgin) or as eccentric geniuses (ex: rumors about Sir Isaac Newton). In either case, the attitude in which these men are viewed is a sort of bemused surprise. In contrast to women, the expected state for men is as not a virgin. However, failure to conform is not regarded as deeply shameful for men as it is for women.

        The role both men and women have filled as virgins has been as holy people (ex: Joan of Arc, St. Augustine) and as deities. However, even as deities, male and female virgins are represented very differently. There are vastly more female virgin goddesses in Western traditions (ex: Artemis, Athena, the Virgin Mary) than male virgin gods (Jesus). Additionally, the implications for male and female people differ in that all women are implicitly expected to be Mary, but no/few men are held to the standard of Jesus.

        It is important to understand that our telling of history is an important component of how we construct our culture. The clear dichotomy between male and female virginity represented in our culture reinforces the concept of “compulsory heterosexuality” that Adrienne Rich describes in her essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Learning about how virginity has been understood and portrayed historically allows us to understand virginity as a social construct, and puts the responses of students who reacted to our poster into a wider cultural and historical perspective.

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1972 Sex Positivity Fair: Body Image


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1972 Sex Positivity Fair: Body Image by Rachael, Maryanna, Malia, and Caroline B.

“If we start from a position of neutrality, and do not make an a priori assumption that higher  BMI  is  unhealthy,  we  are  left with  numerous  studies  showing  health  benefits based on quality nutrition, regular physical activity, social support, restful sleep, freedom  from  violence  and  stigma,  abstention  from  smoking  and  excessive  alcohol  and drug use, access to quality medical care, and so on” (Burgard, 47).

According to Jen Baker in her TED Talk Total Body Love, “4% of women will call themselves beautiful, and in my experience men are very similar.” By creating an exhibit for the 1972 Sex Positivity Fair, we seek to discover why only 4% of women would call themselves beautiful. As students of GSS 101, we have learned to identify the voices seeking to force, in both subtle and blatant ways, the image of the “ideal” body upon us. We have learned to reject these voices in the name of Total Body Love. We have identified three voices that are loud, though sometimes unrecognized in our culture: advertising and media, the health/wellness industry, and the medical world.

In a society overridden by advertisements and media, we are constantly bombarded with both conspicuous and inconspicuous symbolism in images dictating what “attractive” means. These images pervading online, in the news, and even in public spaces, are in almost all instances edited to depict what those believe to be a desirable body type for both men and women. For example, in Agnes Rocamora’s article about the fashion industry titled Personal Fashion Blogs: Screens and Mirrors in Digital Self Portraits,she states, “in a field, fashion, where those in charge of taking photographs have been predominantly men, and those photographed women, visuals show the latter behind the camera actively engaged in an act of self-representation contrast with doxic views of men as photographing subject and women as photographed object” (Rocamora, 420). Our culture teaches us that the woman’s body is valued only when serving a specific audience – whether that is the male gaze, commercial gain, or even representations of purity or innocence. The woman’s ideal body type has changed drastically over time, however. Today the ideal female body type depicted in the media is widely accepted as unrealistic and photoshopped, and many companies have moved towards a “body positive” approach to their advertising as in the case of Aerie’s #AerieReal campaign featuring models with untouched bodies. Conversely, advertisements featuring the male body are frequently also photoshopped to unrealistic proportions of musculature, which acts to shape society’s interpretation of masculinity. However, this issue has yet to take off as a widely accepted false representation of the male body, which can lead to low self-esteem and poor body image in the male population.

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The health and wellness industry contributes to an unrealistic body image by creating an unattainable picture of health. There are men and women whose bodies simply cannot be shaped and molded into the hard, athletic lines of a stereotypical gym-goer. The pressure to be toned and muscular has led to an increase in disorders like muscle dysmorphia: an obsessive preoccupation via a delusional or exaggerated belief that one’s body is too small, too skinny, insufficiently muscular, or insufficiently lean. Muscle Dysmorphia and other related disorders concerned with the strength of the body (together referred to as “The Adonis Complex”) are often overlooked. Because those affected by muscle dysmorphia are not seeking to drop significant amounts of weight, if at all, they are sometimes considered outside the realm of eating (or body) disorders. We are reminded of Marilyn Wann’s claim that “The weight divide is not just a fat/thin binary… People feel superiority or self-loathing based on each calorie or gram of food consumed or not consumed, in each belt notch, pound, or inch gained or lost, in each clothing size smaller or larger” (Wann xv). We learned that identifying voices seeking to shape body image in a way not immediately identifiable with the pressure to be thin or beautiful are especially insidious, and need to be addressed. IMG_6510Because they are encouraged to subscribe to patriarchal standards of “masculinity,” many men are imprisoned by society’s definition of “healthy.” Harrison Pope argues in his book Rise of the Adonis Complex, “Over the last three decades, the Adonis Complex has spread dramatically among boys and men, and more and more men are struggling to improve their appearance in one way or another.”  This obsession men experience with body image echoes Harrison Pope’s study, which reported “95% of college-aged men being dissatisfied with some part of their bodies.” Muscle dysmorphia and other disorders of the health/wellness world need to be more widely recognized in order to make effective and valuable changes.

Another voice seeking to define which bodies should be loved and which should be shamed comes out of the medical world. Fat studies scholars like Marilyn Wann and Deb Burgard argue that the unrealistic and scientifically false standards of “health” set up by health and wellness industries are perpetuated by members of the medical world through measures like BMI. BMI, or Body Mass Index, is one of a variety of “ideal” weight charts used by the federal government to mandate who is healthy and who is not. The problem with BMI is that it is too simple, and does not account for the full range of human diversity, especially in children. BMI works by juxtaposing height and weight to create a n
umber from 12-42. The oversimplification of the incredible varieties of the human body leads to the “medicalization of human diversity,” which “ inspires a misplaced search for a ‘cure’ for naturally occurring difference. Far from generating sympathy for fat people, medicalization of weight fuels anti-fat prejudice and discrimination in all areas of society” (Wann xiii).  Medical professionalsIMG_6508 who seek to determine patient’s achievement of “good health” based on flawed scales like BMI contribute to the chorus of voices that say, falsely, that our bodies are too fat, not muscular enough, too short; basically, that our bodies are
incorrect. We still need to seek advice from medical professionals; there are men and women who have completed years of training in order to help us live our best lives. Through this project, we discovered the importance of seeking medical professionals who understand and appreciate the diversity in human bodies and also encourage us to seek out a truly healthy lifestyle (in every sense of the word).

 

 

Works Cited

Rocamora, Agnès. “Personal fashion blogs: screens and mirrors in digital self-portraits.” Fashion Theory. Vol 15, No. 4, 2011.

Wann, Marilyn. Foreword to the Fat Studies Reader, by Marilyn Wann,  xxi-xxvii. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

Income Inequality Across Countries

In this article published by The New York Times, Melinda Gates brings to attention the income equalities between men and women in the United States and other countries. Similar to the “Committee on the Status of Women in India,” Mrs. Gates points out that economic change needs to begin at the root of culture. This document addressing India states that ” [the] distinction between man’s work and woman’s work in respect of household jobs will have to be removed” as well as acknowledge that “management of a family should be admitted as economically… contributing to national savings and development.” The interview with Mrs. Gates and the manifesto in India show that economic inequality has been a constant problem even since 1974 (when the document was published) to today in 2016.

“We need to call work what it is — work — whether you do it at home or whether you do it out in the labor force, and then give men and women options to choose what they want to do.” – Melinda Gates

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/23/upshot/how-society-pays-when-womens-work-is-unpaid.html?_r=0