My buddy and roomie, Jenn, and I were walking out to dinner the other night, and I was ranting about a paper one of my buddies and colleagues had just sent me (among many others) to review before his presentation at the Cultures of Violence seminar in England at the end of the month. I was being lively and animated, as the subject – the culture of violence in South Africa, its roots and reprecussions – is one I’m really interested in, and touched a little on my own work regarding female ANC members and their relationships to violence during the 80s and 90s.
As we paused at a stop light, Jenn turned to me and said, “You know, why aren’t you going to those African Studies seminars at U of Chicago that Bernard invited you to when you first got here? You’ve been leaving work early all week. Why not head south and join in the discussions?”
Here followed my usual excuses, “It’s on Tuesdays. I have Tuesday prep to do on Tuesday, you know, it’s the day between martial arts classes. And with work, I never know when we’ll be busy again…. and…”
“But Kameron, you’re prepared to add another jogging day and *another* Saturday workout day to your schedule. Why not go to the seminars? You just seem so happy right now, talking about history and South Africa and cultures of violence.”
I flashed back to an anecdote from Paul Compos’ The Obesity Myth: a highly successful female lawyer, who’d been on various boards, edited various publications, and was pulling a substantial salary, confided that the time in her life when she felt the most accomplished were those moments when she briefly (often for no more than a few months) “acheived” her “goal weight.”
A woman’s biggest accomplishment. Bigger than law school. Money. Mate. Children. Friends. Publications. Professional esteem.
Her waistline was her biggest accomplishment.
Can you imagine asking a male CEO what he felt his biggest accomplishment was, and getting that answer?
Here I am, investing in 30lb free weights this week (up from 20lbs), getting ready to spend another $24 a month to add another day a week of martial arts classes, finding another day a week to squeeze in a jogging session… and in the mean time, I’ve been banging my head against a novel no one else seems to be interested in, I only have four stories in the mail (instead, of say, my top-out of 14), and I keep staring at Ph.D. programs in Women’s Studies and thinking, “Shit, I’m just not up for *that*! Think of the pay cut!”
The pay cut. Of all things.
See what getting all comfy with the system gets you? A body that will always be imperfect, as standards of beauty always change, an obsession with whole-wheat pitas, and the ability to lift 100lbs above your head.
Useful? Only if I’m carrying buddies out of a raging fire. And there are no pitas about.
I’m currently reading Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s The Body Project, a history of women’s relationships with their bodies, sexuality, and the meaning of being female from, roughly, the 1890s to the 1990s. Brumberg uses adolescent girls’ diaries to gauge differing attitudes about mensturation, acne, and the virtues of “being a woman” over the last 100 years. What she’s beginning to show is the progression from conceptions of female beauty in forms of virtue and good works, to having fine skin, a robust disposition, and now, an increasing obsession with the size and shape of the actual physical body without the aid of undergarments. As corsets and girdles went by the wayside, the sculpting of the body has become the signifier of a woman’s beauty and success. Moving through merely obsession over calories in the 1920s, when the “flapper” style became popular (it was a style that meant not wearing a girdle, yet having a skinny, boyish physique – oddly around the same time women got the vote in America. hm.), to the obsession with fitness and later toned, muscular female bodies (like Madonna) today. Our obessessions are now becoming increasingly medicalized (plastic surgery) as undergarments (the private) are thrown out in favor of the skin of the body itself as the undergarment (though I think most people would wonder what on earth the skin is keeping private. If anything at all).
It’s been fascinating watching this romp through obsessions with various bits of the female form. It’s never the actual woman that’s all wrong, it’s just her “parts,” as if we women are a Frankensteinian assemblage of inadequate appendages (It’s interesting that Shelley’s Frankenstein created a male monster and not a female: because the writer was female, perhaps?). But the overall impression I’m left with, after trolling through bits of diaries, is this:
This is an amazing expenditure of female energy. Obsessing over calories, over “incorrect” body parts, huge thighs, small breasts, etc. etc.
What could we be doing with this energy, instead?
All of us. Every single one. If I halted my own body project at its subsistence “health” level right now, if I didn’t try and overdo it, make it into my own personal obsession to the extent of everything else, if I kept myself in check and didn’t apologize to people who look me up and down and say, “You do all that? You really eat that way? Then why aren’t you thin?” If I instead loop myself back into the land of the living, focus again on acadamia, push the writing forward, leave the martial arts to casual recreation, and remind myself that trekking up to Macchu Picchu really isn’t until 2007…. If I do all that, what sort of amazing person could I be?
Eliminate the body project, the depression and angst about eating whip cream with those strawberries, the needless sleepless nights worrying “If I ache so much and work so hard, why aren’t I thin?”, if I eliminate those nights and push them back to studying for the GREs, going over graduate school applications, researching programs, and getting these goddamn stories in the mail, well, hell… I might be able to beat the self-hate cycle and be really damn cool. Because I think it’s not neccessarily increasing my martial arts classes that’s the problem. It’s the motivations behind it. I need to clean up my motivations.
As my buddy Jenn said, after I took up wall climbing on Sundays in addition to those boxing classes, “When you’re 30, Kameron, you’re going to be really scary.”
I hope so.
And I hope my smart, brutal woman self remains not only physically strong, but isn’t taken down by the trivial shite this culture keeps heaping on me. Somewhere in the middle, my strong brutal woman self will meet my academic sensibilities, and they’ll dance.
Though, knowing me, they’ll box.
Maybe they’ll kiss afterwards?
It’ll be a good show, in any case.