Tag Archives: bodies

“God, The Human Body!”: People as Scenery

Debbie says:

Lynne Murray pointed me at this article by John Jeremiah Sullivan on his trip to Cuba with his Cuban-American wife and their daughter in the spring of 2012.

The whole article is interesting, and Sullivan’s complete unawareness of his American privilege is simultaneously business-as-usual and jaw-dropping. He’s been to Cuba two or three times. He really does think he knows all about it. The moment where he fails to tell the Cuban cook at the hotel omelet station why he doesn’t approve of the embargo between U.S. and Cuba deserves a blog post of its own. Racialicious? Are you interested? There’s some overly familiar anti-Communism in the second half of the article that you could throw in for free.

What struck Lynne and me, from a Body Impolitic perspective, is this:

Every time I looked up from the book, there were more people in and by the pool, as if they were surfacing out of the water, out of the ripples. I had black sunglasses on, so after a while I propped myself at an angle at which I could seem to read the book but really be moving my eyeballs, staring at everybody. God, the human body! It was Speedos and bikinis, no matter the age or body type. You would never see a poolside scene in the United States with people showing this much skin, except at a pool where people were there precisely to show off the perfection of their bodies. The body not consciously sculptured through working out has become a secret shame and grotesquerie in America, but this upper-class Euro-Latin crowd had not received that news, to my distraction. I took in veins and cellulite, paunches and man-paps, the weird shinglelike sagging that starts to occur on the back of the thighs, cleavage that showed a spoiled-grape-like wrinkling, the ash-mottled skin of permanently sun-torched shoulders, all of it beautiful. All of it beautiful and tormenting.

We’re at a hotel pool here, a hotel elegant enough to have an omelet station, and a large pool. Sullivan says he finds all the flesh “beautiful,” but everything else he says about it belies that belief. I find most of veins and cellulite, paunches and man-paps, sagging on the back of the thighs, wrinkled cleavage, and sun-mottled skin beautiful. I’m an American–I didn’t find this effortlessly. I’ve had to learn to work with what I see, to (in Laurie’s words) “make the invisible visible.” I would have loved being at that poolside recently. Sullivan is an evocative writer, and his descriptions are very visual. As he makes clear, however, he has done none of that work–he just thinks he should, so he gives lip-service to “beautiful.”

Where he goes from there is back into extreme American privilege:

You watched an 18-year-old Argentine girl in her reproductive springtime walk past an ancient Soviet-looking woman, her body a sculpture of blocks atop blocks, and both of them wearing black bikinis, the furtive looks they gave each other, full of emotions straight from the Pliocene, from the savanna. The old men scowled from behind mirrored shades. The young men tensed every muscle in order to seem not obsessed with how the girls saw them, a level of self-consciousness I found I could no longer really re-enter, as if it had been a drunken state. Everybody was stealing looks at one another, envying or disdaining or gazing, like me. We were all inside a matrix of lust and erotic sadness, all turning into versions of one another, or seeing our past selves.

Ask yourself: is that what was going on outside of Sullivan’s head? People of all ages, all over the spectrum of “conventional beauty” (as it is defined in the United States, the country most responsible for spreading our movies and advertising around the globe), are at a pool, wearing what they feel like wearing, and the driving emotion they are all experiencing is envy? The driving behavior is comparison? It’s possible.

I wasn’t there. I’ve never been to Cuba or even to the Caribbean or Latin America. Still, I would bet next week’s food that most of the people at that pool were just swimming, just lying at the poolside enjoying the sun. When they were looking at each other, they were either enjoying what they saw or moving on to the next person. It’s Sullivan, American, journalist, professional judge, who was “stealing looks, envying or disdaining.” He never says anything about what he looks like, or how he feels he looked to them; that just underlies everything he does say. He describes himself as “gazing,” but his prose says that he’s the one who wasn’t gazing. He’s the only person at that pool we can be certain was comparing.

At the end of the article, he describes a woman he met on an earlier trip to Cuba:

,,, a woman appeared in the passageway that led from the front room into the main part of the house, a woman with rolls of fat on her limbs, like a baby, and skin covered in moles. She walked on crutches with braces on her knees. She had a beautiful natural Afro with a scarf tied around it. She was simply a visually magnificent human being.

Again, this is evocative, visual writing. I feel like I can see her. What I don’t feel is like I know anything about what Sullivan means by “visually magnificent.” He brings her into the story to make a political point; he describes her in detail because if he says “a woman,” most readers will have a completely different image. The “visually magnificent,” to my ear, makes her sound like a sunset or a waterfall.

The trick, which Sullivan apparently has not learned (and probably doesn’t even believe is possible) is to see people as people, not scenery.


Boobs, Bodies, and Book Covers

Debbie says:

Lidia Yuknavitch has a marvelous post on The Rumpus on the decision she and her female publisher made to put a woman’s breast on the cover of her new book, The Chronology of Water.

book cover featuring breast with nipple

(cover photograph by Andy Mingo)

It’s a boob.

With full frontal nip.

What happened next of course is that the book went into design and production. We all understood we were making a cover that was at the very least atypical. Possibly controversial. Absolutely, as it turned out, problematic for some in terms of visually showcasing the cover. For example, Facebook does not “like” naked boobs.

Yuknavitch goes on to talk about the gender issue that arises when a book cover like this is chosen, designed, and supported by women, and is considered “unacceptable” by a system that is predominantly male. (Her publisher, Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne Books, has created a wrapper that covers the tit, so in effect the book has a boob cover and a no-boob cover.)

When it comes to representation, it is not entirely OK for women to insist upon the representation of their own bodies in their own terms. And by OK, I mean culturally sanctioned, commercially viable, literarily or intellectually respected. And when I say in their own terms, I mean with a specific representational validity and aim, and without apology. You are just going to have to trust me with this next statement when I say, virtually NO agents or mainstream or commercial presses would touch this cover. Few literary presses would.

You don’t have to trust her with that statement; you can trust me instead. I’ve worked in book publishing on and off since 1988, and I do it now. Nipples are taboo in publishing. Laurie and I know exactly which Women En Large photographs we can send to newspapers and magazines, because the nipples are either not in the picture or not very visible. On book covers, nipples and pubic hair can’t even be discussed in the cover conference. Yuknavitch is also right that women’s bodies, which are used to sell everything else under the sun, are not common on “literary” book covers, perhaps because they are used to sell everything else under the sun, and literary books perceive themselves as different. The nipple rule is decades old. In the 1990s, when we discussed revisiting it at the publisher where I was working, we were told that it was not open to discussion.

In her discussion of people’s reaction to holding the book, Yuknavitch says:

… people would be embarrassed to be seen with a boob book in their hands. Though it’s true enough that LOTS of other people would be downright skippy and proud to hold one in public and wave it around – I have a boob book! HA! – she also meant, at least implicitly, you can’t have a nude woman on the cover of your book if you intend to be taken seriously by the wizards in charge of marketing and consumption in the literary industry.

I think she misses one point here: books are things that we hold. Advertisements are things that we look at, and either turn the page or keep driving. I expect people who understand most or all of Yuknavitch’s arguments about the body (we’re getting to those) might still feel a little uneasy holding that naked boob in their hand for the hours it takes to read the book, especially (but not only) in public.

She goes on to discuss the philosophy behind her choices. By philosophy, I mean an extremely appealing mixture of Plain Talk and references to famous philosophers.

Let me tell you why I became insistent about the cover. My memoir is, at its heart, about how I survived the life I was dealt, kind of like we all do. The central and enduring metaphor that holds the story together is swimming. And the central site of meaning in this story I have told about making a self from the ruins of a life is a body. A real body.

An eating, fucking, shitting, peeing, sweating, bleeding, body.

… Part of the dire problem is that it is quite difficult to make the assertion that one owns ones mode of representation and ones mode of production and the meaning making operations of ones body as a woman.

Yes, I mean that in the Marxist sense.

As it turns out, those ideas – commodity, labor, production, distribution, epistemology and ontology – seem unequivocally reserved for the realms of philosophic discourse, on the one hand – and in particular, whether we want it to be true or not, a rather patriarchal philosophical discourse, and on the other hand, market driven rules and regulations, another patriarchal bastion which does not include women owning the signification modes.

One of the things I kept thinking as I was reading was, “Well, yes, but the reader can’t tell that the cover was chosen and designed by women. From a purchaser’s, or advertiser’s, or even store bookbuyer’s point of view, what’s the difference? Yuknavitch answered me quite neatly by the end of her post:

That body ain’t no airbrushed hot model’s body. That boob is not “man-made.” That nip isn’t quite right – and what’s not quite right about it is that it’s a real nipple. It sits how it sits, is sags a bit, there are imperfections all around it. Also, I have it on good authority that it’s the boob and nip of a woman closing in on fifty years old.

… this is what happens when you put the mode of representation, production and distribution in the hands of, well, smarty women. There is no silicone or push-up bra or tantalizing sexualization, fetishization, or ironic stance. There are freckles and saggages and discolorations.

The cover is showing you something about an ordinary woman’s body. Inside, the text is saying something about how an ordinary woman found a self by and through her own body. Between seeing and saying, a dialogic exists.

Now she’s speaking Body Impolitic’s language: images of real bodies are the truly radical images of these times. The wizards in charge of marketing and consumption in the literary industry may shy away from all nipples, whether sagging and aging or perky and young, but the wizards in charge of marketing and consumption in the wider world love every image they can find of young women’s bodies (or at least Photoshopped young women’s bodies). No one but a few smarty women are smarty enough to love images of all bodies … and to be aware of just how transgressive it is to not just show, but showcase, the otherwise invisible ones.

As she makes all of these clear points, Yuknavitch references Kristeva, and Cixous, and Bakhtin, and Zizek, and Jhally, and more, all with links for those who don’t know their work.

Now I want to read the book.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for the pointer.