The other day I received the following comment on a post called “Love of Labour Lost,” which I published on December 25, 2013. In the original post, I nastily rant against unfit people who are afraid of becoming “too muscular” by accident: Dear FFG, I really enjoy your blog and find your posts very satisfying to read, so first off, thank you! However, on the issue of bodybuilding, I must say that there seems to be a great deal of intolerance on the part of the athletes towards anyone who doesn’t agree with the aesthetic. I fully agree that the comments by the gym-goers who fear bulking up are ignorant and uninformed (and in very poor taste), but one’s body shape is a matter of personal preference. It is possible to achieve various healthy alternatives. I understand your point that there is a lack of appreciation for the hard work and time investment in achieving a muscular physique, but I find the lack of regard for someone else’s aesthetic quite jarring.
Instead of replying to this comment in a few sentences, I have decided to respond at some length to certain aspects of it in the text that follows. First of all, I would like to thank Elena for writing it, as it is always rewarding to get feedback as well as a sense of who (if anyone) is actually out there reading this blog. Elena’s call for “body tolerance” got me thinking and, as usual, my ideas quickly turned to broader issues not necessarily addressed by her, including such themes as dominant culture, power dynamics, and the increasing demand for what I call “civilized blandness.” Let me start by saying that some of Elena’s concerns are related to my writing style, which is blunt and often filled with hyperbole. A gigantic shitload of hyperbole. I want to say more about that below, but in this opening paragraph I will simply state that the post in question was discussing anonymous people who fear becoming muscular and criticizing them for their ignorance, not for their particular body shapes. All the same, I do not agree with Elena that “one’s body shape is a matter of personal preference.” In fact, I could not disagree more.
The commonsense assertion that we are individuals equipped with free will, able to choose whatever body we like, is informed by neo-liberal ideology, a belief system I have critiqued in other posts, especially “The ‘Fat’ Female Body,” published on December 13, 2012. Without repeating myself, this ideology implies that we begin on more or less equal grounds, choosing our own fates through the various decisions we make: whether or not to pursue higher education, to eat junk food, or get breast implants and so forth. The assumption that individual preferences are unique and strictly personal can lead to different responses. One is the populist “live and let live” concept that Elena endorses, which is somewhat biblical in nature. The other is a more judgmental “you made your own bed and now you must lie in it” approach, which is rather brutal. Both responses are nevertheless closely aligned because they assume that individuals pre-exist culture and then engage with it on their own terms, as if in some kind of vacuum, according to their particular tastes. I and many others contend, however, that on the contrary, the notion of an “individual” is itself historical and changes over time. We emerge as selves within particular circumstances and have a rather limited range of decisions to make. We make those decisions not as individuals per se, but within complex communal networks that include family traditions (whether we accept or refuse them), cultural norms, presumptions about the “good life” as well as understandings of what it means to be happy and successful, and so forth.
The preferred female body in our contemporary consumer culture is a skinny and relatively weak one, repeated ad nauseam in fashion magazines. A very small, lean, and ever-so-slightly muscular one may also be acceptable. Women did not choose these rather narrow ideals, though many have discovered that adhering to them brings tangible benefits. Thin and small women will be treated better in social situations, have access to a wider array of jobs, and receive more attention from preferred sexual partners, whatever gender they may be. I am not sure that anyone simply decides to conform to these ideals in a rational manner. Nor is it necessarily an act of deliberate rebellion for women to cultivate muscular frames, though they are certainly refusing some of the social rewards that silently accompany the skinny-fat and skinny ideals. The question of how women come to resist dominant forms in various or even partial ways remains a mind-boggling conundrum, especially when they do so in a spectacular fashion. Why else has so much critical attention been paid to the physical accomplishments of heavyweight female bodybuilders? Though these women are arguably underappreciated within the dominant culture, they are more or less adored objects of fascination within the academy. [aside: I am not going to talk about schmoes here, for that is another kind of adoration altogether]. The preference for these women in certain circumstances is hardly an act of intolerance. It is a deliberate privileging of bodies that defy norms and render visible current power dynamics. In the terms developed by French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, power is not something that one can “have” or “lack.” It is a relationship in which one engages, again not by choice. One participates in numerous different power relations whether one likes it or not, moving in and out of situations throughout the day. To simplify this concept, I am powerful when acting as a professor on campus, but less so when submitting to an obstetrical examination at my doctor’s office. I am oppressed when slender girls look at me and decide that they “do NOT want to look like that” [i.e. like me when I was visibly muscular], but enabled when I do multiple sets of pull-ups at the gym with PDDs or Fitbabe.
Ignorance is never innocent. What a person does not know, whether by accident or cultivated blindness, shapes who they are and what they can think about. Let us all pause here for a moment to consider some of the things in the world about which we know absolutely nothing, including the experiences of others, specific bodily sensations, or the principles of interior design [aside: that was the example provided by my LSP when I asked him to reveal his lack of knowledge]. The unnamed young women that I criticized in my previous post were ignorant and not innocent; they had all publicly denounced muscular bodies, expressing their desire to be small and slender. Has this situation ever really been reversed? Has a bodybuilding woman loudly pointed to a skinny fat zumba girl and shouted: “Ugh, I hope I never look like that!” Not to my knowledge, but I insist that even if this did occur it would not be a comparable or equal situation. One body type adheres to the dominant and preferred form while the other does not. As thinking people, we must recognize and address the power dynamics of these dominant forms and consider how they are received in order to pursue real rather than false tolerance.
Sometimes tolerance is understood in a “live and let live” kind of way, where all behaviour is considered equal—that is, equally undeserving of critique. The assumption is that we should focus only on ourselves and our personal choices, without stepping back to engage with culture more broadly. This facile detachment is increasingly mistaken for civility and politeness, and is literally enforced, especially in relation to media figures as well as any woman who dares to speak her mind in public. Let me provide an example. I am embarrassed to admit that on New Year’s Eve this year I stayed home and watched TV. My excuse is that I was over 8 months pregnant, but still, I feel shame. Anyway, I managed to regard for the first time the performance of certain spokespeople, including one named Carson Daly, arguably the most bland and inoffensive person alive. Ugh! In contrast to his careful refusal to say much of anything, one of his co-hosts was an opinionated and feisty lady called Natasha Leggero. I took a shine to her aggressive wit and laughed at many of her jokes, but one of them caused quite a backlash, about which you may have heard. Leggero dared to poke fun at veterans—the joke involved their aged dentures—a group that is apparently considered sacrosanct in the United States. Her funny remark garnered a slew of rape and death threats against her, in yet another public display of rampant misogyny, discussed in many articles and blogs, including one by Amanda Marcotte (http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/08/01/misogynist-trolls-have-an-agenda-and-its-not-lulz/). Leggero was by no means acting in an intolerant or offensive way. She was, however, refusing to be a popular and superficial dullard like Daly or Kelly what’s her face on morning TV. I respect that Leggero avoided doing the easy thing by apologizing because she recognized that denying her ability to have opinions would be an act of compliance. See http://www.natashaleggero.com/letter/. To repeat: demonstrably smart and outspoken women are routinely punished online, for being “too big for their britches,” whether intellectually or physically. Proper forms of feminine display involve being vulnerable, needy, sweet, and accepting of all others, particularly when those women work in low-end service jobs, like waiting tables, or otherwise rely on the kindness of strangers. It is precisely this kind of obedient and obligatory tolerance that I am against. I say fuck that kind of tolerance. My own aggressive and opinionated writing style could well hurt me in the future, especially if this blog is read by any of the judges currently ranking my grant applications [god forbid]. Still, I embrace what I think is a better form of tolerance, one that is based on an ethical engagement with existing power dynamics in an effort to change them. I realize that practically none of my remarks address the content of Elena’s comment directly; I have nevertheless shown her respect by taking her seriously, and making an effort to explain myself more fully. This is my version of tolerance.
I agree with your Foucauldian interpretation of power structures and how they should be applied to hegemonic discourses regarding bodies and perceptions of sexuality (constructions of the ideal femininity, etc.). But I wonder how Bourdieu would approach this subject by framing it in terms of habitus and fields? Fields clearly act as a space for conflict, but habitus would be applied much more generally, in the sense that social agents control the mechanisms (and discourses) of the habitus. As a grad student, I wonder if anyone has aligned these many theories which we use to think about culture, hegemony, the liberal order framework, colonialism, power, ‘othering,’ and the subaltern (clearly, female body builders could fit into a certain category of a ‘marginalized’ population, though I’m less certain that the political agenda would be present). [For contextualization, in case it wasn’t obvious, I’m currently thinking through many of these ideas as I write my dissertation.] On another note, do you think that even if ‘we’ (whoever that may be) adopted a form of tolerance and ethical thinking about all body types, that ‘we’ could really have the power to subvert the gendered/sexist/misogynist rhetoric surrounding bodies portrayed by the media, when ‘we,’ as a society, is so attached to capitalism and exploitation?
Thanks for your comment Crystal. I think the main person to have used the concepts of the habitus and fields to think about the subaltern is Bourdieu himself, particularly in his earlier work on the educational system. His writing has had a great impact on thinking about the body, in the realm of sociology and sports studies. I refer to some of this scholarship in a post called “Paradoxical,” whereas his aesthetic theories and discussions of different forms of capital inform another post, “Distinction Drive.” I think that habitus could be useful in terms of critiquing current body ideals, but don’t agree that social agents control the habitus. The habitus is determined by the social conditions within which we live, and we embody it, mostly in an invisible way. That said, I think that we can resist it or at least make it visible, but not necessarily in a straightforward or intentional way. I also think that we must try to subvert the racist and sexist production of bodies, starting with at least a partial realization of our own implication in them. What do you think? What forms of subversion do you consider most effective, if any?
Thanks for this great post. As a fellow (albeit fledgling) academic who also enjoys pondering issues of representation and performance related to women and power (specifically in regards to weight loss and heavy lifting), I always enjoy reading and thinking about your posts.
Thanks Mary. It is always nice to get such feedback. I would love to hear more about your own work and encourage you to consider writing a guest post for the FFG blog.
I am grateful too. I just went through treatment for breast cancer and am living breast free, I also choose to forego wearing the shape of breasts within my clothing. I am lifting heavy weights for the first time in my life and I love the aesthetics. You might imagine this choice was not supported by my medical team, and that in daily life I am confronted with questioning eyes at my different body type, often, though people are often too polite to point or comment. The links in this article are great too, you sent me on an internet jaunt! I will be back.
Thank you for taking the time to address some of the issues in my comment.
Whereas I agree that it is admirable to fight against culturally accepted norms, most individuals (myself included) don’t possess the amount of energy and will that it takes to be in a constant tug of war with our environment and years of conditioning. Hence my live and let live attitude.
That said, I have no problem with your blunt writing style (in fact, it’s what keeps me coming back).
Good luck with your delivery!
Thanks Elena. I hope that your comment will encourage others. I often receive feedback via facebook or in person and wish that more people would take the time to write and post comments for all to read and think about. I know that busy lifestyles are always an issue….