Tuesday, December 8, 2009

words of wisdom: Objectivity & Authenticity: “(Fe)male bodied” / “(Fe)male identified” (Language Politics)


won't show you, september 2009

here is an excerpt from an article published on a great blog called "taking up too much space," and this post was written by cedar. i wanted to share it because it really hits home about a lot of things i've been thinking about lately, the power we have in our bodies and how we chose to present them, but also how we can be stripped of that power because of assumptions others make or impose on our bodies. this is something i have struggled with ever since becoming interested in fashion as an empowering thing; the way i present my body is my choice, but the way it is read is not always something i can predict. as someone who presents themselves on the femme end of the spectrum, i have often struggled with my privilege and had a hard time articulating these feelings, but i feel like cedar says this a lot better and in a clearer way than i can at the moment. click here to read the entire article:

What [the term] '(fe)male bodied' does is try to avoid the messiness of respecting our identities and categorizing us solely that way and find an 'objective' way of talking about people that you can use just by looking at them or by knowing their histories. But this Cartesian mind-body dualism is bunk–my body is still my body, and defining it as male or female is still defining me as male or female, and my body is not this thing that exists wholly separate from my mind, that cannot know or feel things or from which my sense of self can be divorced. My sex and my body are my self determination, don’t try to pry in with the crowbar of coercive language.

Part two is that not only do some people use the term to classify me as 'male bodied' and others use it to classify me as 'female bodied'–but that there’s a reason for this ambiguity. This 'objective' 'neutral' 'real' body that they want to jump to just isn’t there. Some people mean chromosomes, some mean presence or absence of a penis, some people mean hormone levels and how your body appears socially, some people just aren’t thinking about trans and intersex people’s bodies. But the assumption of using the phrase is that people will have half a clue of who you mean, which positions all bodies as belonging to pre-acknowledged sexed categories unambiguously and objectively. Regardless of what categories persons are placed in and how transphobic that placement is, by 'empowering' the listener to do the placing, the term nullifies self-definition of sex/embodiment, and undermines resistance to the binary medical model for being trans.

So while I fully support all people speaking of their bodies as male and/or female (and/or other possibilities), don’t use '(fe)male bodied' as a category of people (based on body parts) as opposed to an individual’s self definition–even if you’re trans.

My body is my identity, my identity is my body. Don’t try to separate them, I went to a lot of effort to help them learn to play nice with each other.

that last line hits home for me. as someone who operates in this world with a certain amount of privilege, as an able-bodied, tall, conventionally attractive, femme-presenting woman, people often forget that i identify as queer and will often make problematic statements to me assuming/hoping i agree with them. (but anyone who knows me knows that i am opinionated and i can't keep my mouth shut if i disagree with you... hell, even if i agree with you) i have had more than a few conversations with cisgendered people who see someone who presents themselves as androgynous and ask me, without hesitating, "do you think that person is a man or a woman?" my response is almost unfaillingly, "maybe they don't fit into either of those definitions, or maybe they want to you to wonder."


photo from the sartorialist

from the sartorialist, titled "perfect androgyny" yet still tagged as "men"

i think we live in a culture that accepts certain kinds of androgyny in the public sphere (in the glam rock and new wave scenes, thinking of david bowie circa aladdin sane, annie lennox or in the modelling/fashion industry, namely omahyra) but is always confused by it when seen in reality. when someone does not want to go by gendered pronouns. when someone does not want to be read as one or the other. it is all well and good to say "i think it sucks that kids are forced to chose blue or pink" but often those same people are not ready (or willing) to start unlearning the gender dichotomy. that's where the real works needs to be done.

des garçonnes in 1920s europe

my own relationship to gender is a somewhat simple one. for the most part i am happy in my body, and all of my explorations with gender had more to do with a dislike of how i was treated as a girl, not necessarily in relation to my embodied experience. i didn't like getting elbowed in the breasts at punk shows when was sixteen, but who did? i didn't like being disregarded by boys because i was a girl, but who ever does? i became mouthy, loud, opinionated and refused to have my opinions silenced by obnoxious oblivious stupid boys. but this wasn't really manifested in my gender presentation, and i didn't necessarily feel like it needed to be. part of me felt like that was my way of fucking with gender norms; having hair down to my butt, wearing shabby little kid's t-shirts with purple chuck taylors and ugly wool skirts.

the one body i was always drawn to was the androgynous, rowdy flapper. i have always idealized les garçonnes, but my own body does not fit into the spectrum of what a flapper looked like, in that sense, so i try to make up for it in how i act and live. people often say they love flappers for their fashion, the almost parodic halloween costume idea of boas and fringe dresses and cigarette holders, but we often forget that the way the dressed and presented themselves was revolutionary at the time, and was intrinsically connected to fucking up traditional gender roles. many, if not most, were committed to challenging women's traditional societal roles, by doing things that we take for granted today, such as working, drinking in public, choosing not to get married, smoking, etc. it was the first time in modern history that women cut off ridiculous amounts of hair, started doing drag outside of theatres, were open about their sexualities, and threw off the corsets of the past in favour of comfort and freedom... (these are ideas we can talk about in more detail in another post.)

i can idealize flappers all i want, but i will never truly look like one in spite of my haircuts or clothing. i have a tiny waist and big hips, and drop waist dresses look terrible on me. i only bind my breasts when i do drag, because i like the way they feel. i have curves and i've come to accept them and find enjoyment in them. trying to fit into any idealized body definition is not a healthy habit for me and i've been gradually learning to appreciate the one i occupy.

enough about me, back to cedar's points! the other thing i find particularly powerful about this article is that it highlights the fact we embody our identities; that yes, we can accentuate certain things about ourselves with artifice, clothing, decoration, as well as with certain haircuts, piercings, hair or lack of hair, modifications, tattoos, frames/framing, but in the end when you strip it all away, what are our bodies? are they ever truly ours? our own? or will part of our bodies always be public domain? it took me a long time to understand that my relationship to fashion/clothing could not be separated from my relationship to my body/gender. that they fed into one another, that they are interdependent to one another.

i've been working on some stripped-down self-portraits these days as a way of processing a lot of these thoughts, but doubt i will ever feel comfortable enough to show them on the internet. i think there is a lot to be unpacked there (how self-portraits are a powerful way to deal with identity issues, especially in regards to fashion) but that? i will save for another post.


hommage à claude jutra, may 2009


Alexandra said...

Interesting post.

for me, these distinctions/better ways of conceptualizing identity and gender have been super useful in helping me be an accepting and open person to all people and identities and conceptions of the self.

I know I am comfortable with myself, but what concerns me is how I may project my own experiences as a middle class able bodied white educated chick on others, and how my own biases and conceptions present themselves in my discussions and actions.

I think that is all we can do - take these ideas in and educate ourselves on the existence of other (gender/non-gender) perspectives, these people who don't fit into the dichotomy of gender, or race, or whatever. It's by talking about them that I think we can come to the realization that the "categories" just don't fit, and that really its a scale of gender, if anything.

Anyways, I feel like I only half said what I wanted to say here.

Andi B. Goode said...

This is really interesting but I haven't anything to say...it's something I need to think on because I don't think it's anything I've thought about before.
-Andi x

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