The Slimy Underbelly of Bodies

Debbie says:

The blog Pretty Dumb Things hasn’t been on my radar, but this post is enough to convince me. Chelsea G. Summers is writing about Rebecca Traister’s Salon article “The Great Girl Gross-Out”. (You may have to bypass an ad to see the article.)

Traister, using lots of examples and links, is talking about her perception that

We have edged away from a time when talking openly about the female body was necessarily a brave political statement and into one in which it can be self-promotional, potty-mouthed and kind of sweet. It is the merging of a decades-old, well-intentioned but often embarrassing feminist health project with a liberated Internet age in which people have few qualms about airing their very dirty laundry to as wide an audience as possible, and in which women have immediate access to the experiences of their peers and elders, no matter what intimate abysses, emissions or embarrassments those stories entail.

Traister concludes:

Whether or not you view female excretions as vile, or whether, lyou view menstruation as “cleansing impurities out of your body,” there is no question that many women find the process of self-revelation, as Holmes said, cathartic. It’s about breaking certain silences, yes. It’s about letting loose with long pent-up questions and anecdotes and curiosities and fears. It’s about laughing about things that might otherwise make you wail with shame or pain or fear.

And at the same time, it can be about getting attention, performing, flaunting and acting out your own vulnerabilities, getting noticed for your willingness to debase yourself or win a gross-out contest that once could have only been dominated by boys. It can be painfully self-punishing to read and self-objectifying to write. It can be liberating, and poignant, and it can also be irritating and crass. All at the same time!

This is interesting enough, and Traister is a good writer and good researcher. But Summers takes it an important step further.

I might be rushing to state this next point, and bear with me if I am because this is just a blog post ripped from the top of my fecund mind and not a fully researched article. I’m going to say it nonetheless: if you want to know what values a culture holds dear, you need to take a look at the way the culture looks at everyone from male to female, young to old, bottom to top, but if you want to see what makes the culture’s skin crawl with the inexorable creep of the horrorsloth, you need to look at the way the culture treats women’s bodies. I’m not suggesting that the way we look at male bodies, specifically aging male bodies, reveal nothing. Pictures, text about, advertisements involving male bodies with back hair, big guts, man-boobs, nasal tufts, bald heads and so on say a lot about how we think about aging and what fears we have about masculinity, but male bodies don’t serve quite the same cultural function that female bodies do. Men get a lot more latitude. Women don’t.

Reading Traister’s piece and the Jezebel pieces, and reflecting on conversations I’ve had, things I’ve written, and other things I’ve read, I realized that Traister was right about the grrrrl-power that shades the gross discourse of Sarah Silverman and the raw honest of book like Little Red. Sadie Stein of Jezebel weighs in, saying, “The female body will not be ignored: it burbles and leaks and creaks and drips and emits and produces and reproduces and generates and puffs and inflates and occasionally reeks. It is fascinating. It is scary. It is alarming. It is hilarious and silly and mysterious.”

Where Traister is both ambivalent and supportive, Summers is simply supportive:

To be a woman and to write boldly, nakedly, honestly and funnily about your own body is unquestionably a political act. It’s a revolutionary act. And someday, it may change the way we view the world of human bodies. Someday we might live in a world where every body holds beauty, every body holds secrets, and every body can poop, stink, bleed, decay and be gross, equally.

Science-fiction writer Vonda N. McIntyre said a long time ago that an artistic genre comes to age around sexism when mediocre work by women gets attention (because mediocre work by men always gets attention). I think of that when I read this, because of the cultural assumption that grossness, graphic descriptions, crude imagery somehow “belong” to men. We see it in TV shows from Men Behaving Badly to Two and a Half Men. We see it in our expectations that young boys will say “poopy head” and “poopy butt,” that teenage boys will snigger and make fun of girls, that men in their late teens and twenties will drink until they vomit and sit around trashing women’s bodies. We don’t have similar cultural expectations of girls and young women, at least not yet. So one thing I see when I see women claiming the right to be gross, crude, and completely unrefined is a kind of coming of age.

But there’s one thing missing, that I don’t think either Traister or Summers quite caught. First it was acceptable for men to be gross about women’s bodies (and sometimes about their own). Now, we’re seeing a wave of women being gross about women’s bodies. See the next step? When do women get to be completely, openly, unreservedly gross about men’s bodies? That’s what we need for “every body [to hold] beauty, every body [to hold] secrets, and every body [to be able to] poop, stink, bleed, decay and be gross, equally.”

(As I was finishing drafting this post on a public computer in a cafe in Portland, the young woman next to me said to her partner, “I don’t want to have to sit next to some smelly fat person.” Just sayin’.)

Thanks to Lori Selke for the pointer.

3 thoughts on “The Slimy Underbelly of Bodies

  1. Hey, thanks for the thoughtful consideration.

    But I have to say that I think that women are often very gross about men’s bodies. Think about the way that Erica Jong’s character Isadora Wing treats the bodies of the men she fucks in “Fear of Flying.” Or the way that modern poets like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and others treat male bodies. Or the kind of schoolyard-level conversation that circulates on Jezebel or any other myriad websites about the stank of men’s balls, the epic inability of men to properly wipe their own asses or pee in a proper trajectory.

    The difference, I think, is less that men’s bodies aren’t treated as if they’re disgusting. It’s that even though they are gross, they’re still attractive. Men get the big blank check to be as gross as they wanna be. Women? Not so much.

    Why is it that the pre-five-fitness Seth Rogan, despite the flatulence, the hygiene issues and everything else, always got the hot girl? I’d like to see the comedy where some fat, lazy, stinky, gassy chick gets to hitched with Colin Firth.

  2. Being “gross” was a big concern of mine when I got married. I had grown up in a household where it was impolite to burp, belch (because the two ARE different!), pass gas, and talk about personal body grossness. So when I married and began living intimately with another individual, it freaked me out.

    I had thought to adopt the habit of a long-married couple of my mom’s acquaintance who were never in the bathroom together while the other was using the toilet. My husband went along with me (’cause he’s sweet like that!), but I soon realized that in a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment, I needed to relax my boundaries. Additionally, my husband encouraged me to belch and fart when I felt the need. It took some doing, but a little over two years later, I’m comfortable with him knowing my bodily habits and functions. I even join him in banter about belching and farting, although excrement is still a nauseating topic.

    Although I’m open about body grossness at home, I still think it’s respectful to be discreet about it in public. Not everyone is as open about their bodies as we are. Plus, as an example, a loud belch during meetings is disruptive to the speaker and can serve to get things off track.

    We can’t expect the world to change over night. It’s like the recipe for boiling a frog – slowly introduce the subject and the world will warm up to it, finally becoming enmeshed with it.

  3. We’re both squeamish about body things, except surgical ones. We always say that our marriage is happy because we never ever do things like use the bathroom together (we have an agreement not to talk to each other through the closed bathroom door, too) and don’t talk about such things.

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