So what have I been up to lately? You can spot me most mornings wearing sensible shoes and sporting thick eye bags as I push a stroller—my adorable son is inside—to the café, the spray park, the public library, the grocery store, or the Shopper’s Drug Mart. Much to my surprise, Sebastian attracts a lot of attention from just about everyone: male construction workers, female baristas, old ladies with boney fingers that like to poke chubby cheeks. Every single day, I hear the following phrases at least five times: “What a beautiful baby!” “Look at those eyelashes!” “What big blue eyes!” He is going to break all the girls’ hearts when he is older!” While I enjoy the first three comments, I bristle at the last one. I do not want my baby to be sexualized and/or hetero-sexualized in this fashion. He might grow up to be gay, trans, asexual, shy, or awkward. At least I hope so. These options are better than the proffered vision of him as an ultra-masculine sex bomb barreling through life, moving from one lady to the next. But I digress, for the main issue I want to discuss today is how this public reaction to my son’s appearance is literally creating his world.
When everyone smiles at my son, offering compliments, they teach him that the world is a friendly place and he is welcome in it. That is a good thing of course. Is every baby treated this way? Many are. But I can’t help but wonder: what about the babies with some kind of visible difference or physical challenge, or those with Down Syndrome? Are they looked at and responded to in the same way? Or are there subtle glances, evasions, and movements that send less welcoming messages to them? These questions are important because identities do not pre-exist such social interactions but are created within and through them. Parents and caregivers have the greatest influence, but the world at large is made through our visual and physical engagements with it. We do not control these engagements, especially not during childhood.
My claims are informed by phenomenological theory, which I learned something about by reading Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, and Iris Marion Young in order to write about embodiment in chapter two of my book, Feminist Figure Girl, forthcoming from SUNY Press. According to Merleau-Ponty, the body “exists towards its tasks,” meaning that we learn about it, acquiring what Husserl would call the lived body, by actively taking up bodily possibilities. These possibilities are offered by a world populated with others. It follows that visual interactions have a major impact, a point already made by Young. In her essay “Throwing Like a Girl,” Young argues that the imposition of gender norms compromise women’s free movement and produce a specific kind of “feminine bodily comportment.” A woman’s relation to her body is often hesitant because she simultaneously experiences it as a thing and a capacity, whereas men tend to comprehend their bodies as the originators of motion rather than subject to it. Many women, for instance, will throw a ball awkwardly and with restraint, in telling contrast to the full-bodied and more forceful manner achieved by most men. Paying attention to how bodies are lived in space, Young contends that women: “experience our bodies as a fragile encumbrance, rather than the media for the enactment of our aims. We feel as though we must have our attention directed upon our bodies to make sure they are doing what we wish them to do, rather than paying attention to what we want to do through our bodies.” Young’s generalizations refer to how women are taught to consider their bodies as things on display rather than modes of accomplishment. While men are also looked at and objectified to a certain extent, they are almost always encouraged to be active agents. I am not really worried about the currently exclusive emphasis on my son’s appearance, for example, because I doubt that it will continue into his teens and twenties.
Young’s arguments are somewhat dated and have been critiqued at length. All the same, her basic observations about our sense of body and self—the two are one and the same to phenomenologists—are evident everywhere we look. I have become more aware, for example, of how cultural and gendered differences are produced in the micro-dynamics of everyday life. I often take Sebastian to the free programs at my local library, so that he can see other children in real life and not just on Baby TV. During family story time, I witness worlds being shaped in direct and physical ways: boys are pushed forward to grab the puppets or sit on the narrator’s lap (whether they want to or not), while girls are physically restrained, and told not to shout so loud in the salsa dancing circle. I anxiously wonder how will I raise a confident, strong, smart son who is not also a privileged white asshole, blithely presuming that the world was made for him. It won’t be easy. I can’t help but notice that a lot of older white men blindly live as if the world revolves around them, and even assume that young women in the service industry actually give a shit about their desires. [Aside for “women who do not need feminism” and their ilk: Please be aware that I am not criticizing all men and do not hate all of them. I only hate men who are assholes].
Thinking about such early interactions and extending them to include the visual realm can shed light on our own lives. I have a number of female friends who are attractive and fit but nevertheless suffer from low self-esteem. Recognizing that self-esteem is mandatory within contemporary consumer culture, they strive to attain some. The idea that women should “work on” their self-esteem is, however, based on the conclusion that their lack of it is: 1) their own fault, and 2) correctible. Both notions are false. Self-esteem is not an individual character trait; it results from repeated early interactions like the ones described above. Although baby boys might be temporarily praised for their appearance, many women continue to obsess about their looks as adults because that is what they have always been identified with, whether positively or negatively. The repeated message that many women receive—their main contribution to life is their physical appearance and active sexuality—has negative outcomes. Women formed within and by evaluations of their appearance will likely move dependently from one man to the next, accomplishing next to nothing while accepting that their physical attributes are their primary contribution to any “relationship.” Research and common sense indicate that women attain a sense of self-worth through what they DO, not how they look. Many women find autonomy and satisfaction in any number of chosen careers whether they be motherhood, dog grooming, or writing philosophy. But they work especially hard for those accomplishments and are always subject to being punished for any sign of self-confidence, (re)told that they are nothing more than their appearance, in subtle and not so subtle ways.
A person cannot change this situation through positive self-talk, looking in the mirror every morning and stating “you are beautiful,” or “you are worthy.” There is no easy fix for the broader social structures that produced the objectification and low self-esteem in the first place. Though talk is cheap—in every situation—actions carry weight. Consider the reaction of Tanis Jex-Blake, an Edmonton woman who was ridiculed by a group of twenty-year-olds for her stretch marks while wearing a bikini on an Alberta beach this summer. At first Jex-Blake cried in humiliation, but then she got pissed off, writing a letter on her facebook page to her anonymous attackers, stating her pride in having given birth to five wonderful children, alongside a picture of her hard-working belly. The public reaction was overwhelming: mothers donned bikinis in a public display of support while the story garnered international attention (http://www.bustle.com/articles/34464-tanis-jex-blake-mom-of-five-responds-to-the-people-who-mocked-her-for-wearing-a-bikini). I think that the ensuing discussion of pregnancy and the ways in which it leaves marks of experience on the skin could challenge the visual objectification of women and maybe even change the world, just a little bit.