by Rachel Seiderman, Content Intern
You don’t know me, but we have something in common. Before you start wondering how many siblings I have or what my favorite movie is, I should add that this is something absolutely everyone has in common. Couldn’t be gender, obviously, or race or class. So what is it?
We all have—and, more importantly, we all are—bodies.
The two concepts may seem similar, but scratching the surface reveals that they’re actually quite different. The distinction is a matter of perception: We have (or own or possess) objects, but we are subjects. We’re often taught, particularly in the sciences, that we should strive to remain objective—that is, that we should separate ourselves as observers from whatever it is that we’re observing. In this paradigm, subjectivity is undesirable because it’s messy and contingent on the individual observer rather than some replicable phenomena. (We’ll save the question of whether scientific objectivity is preferable, let alone achievable, for another time and place.)
When scientific objectivity is applied to non-scientific contexts, we run the risk of relentlessly emphasizing bodies as objects while ignoring bodies as subjects. What it comes down to is this: “the body is a cultural, social, and linguistic construct, [but] embodiment is lived experience” (Haas & Witte 2001, 417). Particularly problematic is that bodies as objects are continuously foregrounded in so much of society. Some of these places seem reasonable (doctors’ offices, for example, although that space is still fraught with faulty assumptions), but some don’t really make sense (the flawed body positivity memes we saw last week, for example).
Advertising is especially notorious for transforming bodies into objects, using sex appeal or shame (among other things) to market everything from cars and makeup to weight loss plans and plastic surgery. For example, the 2009 PETA ad below transforms the cartoon fat woman into the object of ridicule and shame, calling her a whale and commanding her to become a vegetarian because that will cause her to “lose the blubber.” Because this woman is meant to represent all fat people, PETA has effectively made all fat people objects of ridicule and shame.
Source: Huffington Post
[The graphic shows a cartoon fat woman in a bikini alone on a beach. The text reads: “Save the Whales. Lose the blubber: go vegetarian.”]
The ad is troublesome for multiple reasons, but there’s one key assumption scaffolding all the rest: bodies are objects that can be assigned value based on what they look like. It’s the same sentiment behind rating people’s looks on a 10-point scale—it reduces people to numbers while reinforcing the conception of bodies as objects and neatly discounting bodies as subjects. Our lived experiences disappear, erasing the fact that, no matter what we look like, our bodies always already impact us in subtle or overt ways, constraining the range of possibilities that is offered to or withheld from us. Erasing the fact that how we experience various spaces is mediated by, through, and with our bodies.
Take some experiences I’ve had at work. This past year I’ve been in a writing center helping clients become better writers, and I’m fat. Why do I mention my size? Because I’ve worked with a number of clients who’ve written about obesity. The thing about working in a writing center is that I sit arm’s-length from my clients, and they read their papers out loud. So I sit two feet away from people whose papers have titles like “Obesity Among Children” and listen to them read about long-term diet plans for seven-year-olds. The way that I experience these consultations depends on my embodiment, the realities of being the type of body that these papers are trying to eradicate. Seeing myself as a subject—validating and valuing all of the things I’ve seen, felt, known, and been—gives me permission to combat the body negativity that often comes with these consultations.
This type of empowerment and radical self-love is becoming more and more mainstream. You’ve probably heard about the backlash Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, received after some comments he made in 2006 recently went viral, and you’ve probably seen Jes Baker’s “Attractive and Fat” response. Baker’s response is so powerful largely because she’s made herself a subject. In the most telling part of her open letter to Jeffries, Baker says, “I was inspired by the opportunity to show that I am secure in my skin and to flaunt this by using the controversial platform that you created.”
Source: The Militant Baker
[The graphic shows two black-and-white photos. In the first, a fat woman wears shorts and a t-shirt that reads “Abercrombie & Fitch.” In the second, the same woman looks lovingly into the eyes of the thin shirtless man embracing her.]
Because of the pairing of words and images, the audience knows what it’s like to live in Baker’s body, how she actually feels. If only for a moment, Baker isn’t an abstract concept—she’s a real woman who’s unapologetic about her subjectivity.
Embodiment provides a way for us to acknowledge the successes and struggles inherent in every body, a framework to use on our own journeys but also to help facilitate the journeys of others. Say it with me: I am not an object. And neither are you.
Haas, Christina, & Witte, Stephen P. (2001). “Writing as an embodied practice: The case of engineering standards.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 15, 413-457. doi:10.1177/105065190101500402