Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bad Female Academic: My Bawdy Body

I'm currently working on an essay about how Nalo Hopkinson uses the (postcolonial, black, queer) body in her short story collection, Skin Folk. The female bodies in particular in her works, both short stories and novels, are very physical; they are pregnant, nursing, menstruating, eating, going though menopause, coming, and they come in all shapes and sizes, lovingly described. This element of her work has always resonated with me. In my research for my current paper, I came across the book Rites of Passage in Postcolonial Women's Writing from Rodopi. One of the essays deals with the difference between "female" and femininity:
If femininity represents the socially acceptable, aesthetic side of 'woman-ness', then femaleness exposes its socially unacceptable, abject underside, the undesirable leftovers of existence. Thus, while abjection deals in the undeniably physical - the messiness of the body's materiality - so aesthetics traditionally shuns the corporeal in favour of the polished, pretty veneer of femininity. (267)
The essay uses Kristeva and goes through the ways women's (particularly girls on the cusp of or going through puberty) are policed. Good girls are sugar, spice, and all things nice (but, not allowed to be seen eating those sweet things). We smell good, we look good, we are clean and fresh.

I've never had a problem with being "female" so to speak. As a tomboy or growing up as "one of the boys," I never felt ashamed of the messiness of being female; it was just something that happened, like the messiness of being a male. Growing up with the boys and their locker room talk just meant, to me, that bodies and bodily functions weren't anything to hide.

Of course, I quickly learned how wrong I was and what the double standard was for me and my female body versus males and their bodies. But being feminine just didn't fit with my personality or my body. I loved to eat, which I could do when I swam almost 30 hours a week. One might be tempted to discuss eating as a substitute for...something I was missing growing up, but for me eating was a simple pleasure that I would not give up simply because it was "un-lady-like" to stuff my face with the boys after a long practice.

Things got especially difficult once I hit puberty and it became clear that I was, despite my best efforts, not one of the boys. I didn't and don't possess a boyish, athletic body. My femaleness became obvious, in fact, it became hard to ignore. It is one thing to be pretty and feminine (think Betty Draper on Mad Men), it is another when your sexuality is on display (think Joan Holloway on Mad Men). I'm a Joan. As the show observes, it is difficult for "Joan" to be taken seriously, and I learned that many, many times over.

Joan Holloway
Betty Draper
I am and will be forever grateful for my best friend at university. She and I shared many similarities (tomboys, Joan-esque figures, former athletes, distaste/discomfort with being "feminine"). We spent five years together as friends and later roommates, figuring out the balance between our female bodies and the feminine expectations of the world around us. I can still remember the times we got "dressed up" when we went out, putting on skirts or dresses and make-up. We were lucky that we grew up in a time when the predominant style was grunge, and thus we could wear baggy cargo pants and oversized plaid shirts, hiding those parts of our messy female selves while still rejecting the feminine rules we didn't want any part of. 

As we got older and moved on, we had to embrace at least some of the rules, particularly if we wanted to partially fit in at our chosen professions (she is a successful communications account manager). But we also figured out that we could be female and feminine, and largely true to ourselves. I miss her immensely because she was someone with whom I could be myself: messy, bawdy, crude, and honest. There was never any pressure to be anything other than who we were, no female pressure to conform, to be more feminine, less female. 

I still love crude, raunchy humor. I have to remember to watch myself, that I don't say too much about bodily functions, because I know that it's not "proper." But I still eat ravenously and unapologetically. And I won't hide the fact that I'm a Joan. I'm still more female than feminine. I hadn't thought of that when choosing the title for this series, but I'm glad I did. 

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, 'cause if you have chipped nails you'll never get that promotion:

    Oh, Cosmo, where would feminist wrath be without you?


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