Tuesday, February 10, 2009

G.R.O.S.S. Girls

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What did you think of this column by Rebecca Traister on the cult of gross-out confessionalism among the writers at Jezebel?

Moe Tkacik wrote about the time she accidentally left a tampon in for 10 days. She described how, on the advice of her editor, she squatted on the floor and started rooting around for the source of the acrid discharge that had been plaguing her for days of sex and drugs and drunkenness. "It was far. I had never reached that far. It was gross-far, nearing the anus zone far."

There were certainly some grumblers in Jezebel's comments section, including one who wrote with anatomical exuberance that Tkacik's odyssey was so disgusting, "My vadge recoiled so hard that I could basically feel it slam into my duodenum." But there were many, many others, expressing sentiments like, "Moe I feel your pain. I was 16 and it was summertime ..." And "Um. This happened to me once. I never told anyone. But one day, after having sex, it just kind of slid out. I'd been wondering what that very strange odour was coming from my yoohoo ... I was very happy to read that I am not the only one this has happened to." One respondent offered, "Midway through, I almost threw up. And yet, kept on reading. At the end, I laughed my ass off. It def. sometimes sucks to be a chick, but at least we can all laugh about the nasty shit together."

Laughing about all the nasty shit -- or crying about it, kibitzing about it, whining about it, bragging about it, confessing it, writing about it, and most important, exposing it -- it's all the rage. Jezebel, the popular women's offshoot of the Gawker empire, has been the leader of the oversharing crusade, with vibrant, aromatic and really graphic posts about everything from lodged tampons to yeast infection remedies to bloody period sex to female ejaculation. (The last, in Tracie Egan's piece, "Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gush," also includes Egan's report that "I live my life perpetually suffering between either mild dehydration or a UTI, meaning that my piss is (ab)normally cloudy, stinky, and dark" ).

Oversharing is in. And for a lot of people who are doing the sharing, or experiencing it, it's not so much "too much information" as it is the next, necessary step in personal-is-political, enlightened honesty about the female body. It's a tack that has been taken in the past, by second-wavers who threw parties at which women were encouraged to take a gander at their cooters with hand mirrors, and by Riot Grrrls, whose zines and music teemed with expressions of female body anxiety. But all that communal celebration or shouted fervor for the female body and its effluvia was always a little too marginal, too embarrassing, reeking of moon-tides and red tents and creaky second-wave earnestness.

Today's version of these revelations can also be celebratory (see "My Little Red Book"), self-punishing (Tkacik and her tampon) and angry (the "Ring of Fire" essay). But it is also often funny and conversational, casual and exhibitionistic. Here are frank, explicit physical descriptions in glossy women's magazines, on a blog that also covers celebrity fashion, from teenagers who are allowing their period stories to be published in a book that everyone might read!

We have edged away from a time when talking openly about the female body was necessarily a brave political statement and into one in which it can be self-promotional, potty-mouthed and kind of sweet. It is the merging of a decades-old, well-intentioned but often embarrassing feminist health project with a liberated Internet age in which people have few qualms about airing their very dirty laundry to as wide an audience as possible, and in which women have immediate access to the experiences of their peers and elders, no matter what intimate abysses, emissions or embarrassments those stories entail.

This new graphic femininity creates a space in which women can tell their own funny or scary stories and provide tips, advice or cautionary tales for others who might harbor silent curiosities about their bodies and what can go wrong (and right) with them.

Whether or not you view female excretions as vile, or whether, like Nalebuff, you view menstruation as "cleansing impurities out of your body," there is no question that many women find the process of self-revelation, as Holmes said, cathartic. It's about breaking certain silences, yes. It's about letting loose with long pent-up questions and anecdotes and curiosities and fears. It's about laughing about things that might otherwise make you wail with shame or pain or fear.

And at the same time, it can be about getting attention, performing, flaunting and acting out your own vulnerabilities, getting noticed for your willingness to debase yourself or win a gross-out contest that once could have only been dominated by boys. It can be painfully self-punishing to read and self-objectifying to write. It can be liberating, and poignant, and it can also be irritating and crass. All at the same time!

I think Susanna Breslin's take is spot-on, that this thought-provoking (and only indirectly ew-provoking because of its quotes) column raises more questions than it answers. While I am all for de-mystifying the female body and its excretions and processes and getting honest answers to common questions that were heretofore shrouded in mystery and euphemism, I am usually pretty grossed out by these columns. More than the TMI, it's just excessive. Were its purposes limited to the clinical (like a Smokey Bear "only you can prevent or at least treat STIs") and commiserating (haha our bodies are gross, group hug!), I might have less of a problem with it. But the authors take on this "Pssst! Check me out! I am sooooo gross and I can write about viscous body fluids and I am sooooooo funny!" level of juvenility that's off-putting. Interestingly, the Jezzies have written more than once against celebrating the confessional for it's own sake. Confessions are not necessarily honest, brave, revelatory, insightful, or relatable. Relatability is a dumb index by which to judge anything, anyway. Sometimes they just reveal the author to be immature and batshit insane. I am increasingly disenchanted with the "confessional" writing at Jezebel, because they seem to be more like exercises in self-justification with very little self-reflection or contrition. Not that one has to apologize for one's bodily processes, but much like being flatulent in public, there's a sort of "erm, excuse me" kind of awareness of the body in public. The body in public is different than the body in private. Call me a prude, but I just do not walk around naked in public or talking about my bodily emissions with everyone.

Now, I do love Spanish picaresque literature, which can be really scatological. And talking about shit can be the fine art of literary criticism. And I do agree, of course that women's bodies have been long shrouded in suffocating veils of mystery and pseudoscience, to our detriment. How will we know how our bodies work without such open honesty (I would suggest taking a few science classes, talking to your doctor, and self-educating, but hey what do I know, since I don't read women's magazines)? How will we learn to receive and experience pleasure, at our hands our our partners? How much does silence make us suffer: between shameful, untreated infections (those odors and emissions signify something) that irritate us or may even lead to infertility, refusing to recognize the humanity behind the femininity (Hey Margaret, it's God. Yeah, being a woman sucks, and your body is going to do some weird shit on you, and it doesn't end after menopause and the research is controversial about hormone replacement therapy so you should talk to your doctor about everything. And, by the way, you will one day have to evacuate your bowels in the same building as your boyfriend), or suffering at the hands of inept lovers we can't bring ourselves to be honest with, boy, does silence seem to have a price.

But there has to be some middle ground between oppressive patriarchal silence and this glut of gross-outism as feminism, isn't there? I mean, I am glad to write about women's health issues and sexuality, but I really never want to write about my own body and I will never write about my personal sexuality. But maybe I am behind the times, and not feminist enough. I mean, the personal is political, right? Perhaps I am antiquated in thinking that while the female body should be studied (most studies use male subjects) and discussed with honesty and openness, the personal body should remain wherever you want it to be, and in most cases is better kept private. Otherwise, we risk losing the individuality that comes with privacy, that while many experiences are shared, our personal relationship to our body is best experienced in private, shared selectively, and kept as our own rather than for public consumption. The body in public is dissected mercilessly and not always in ways that we wish it to be. Street harassment bothers a lot of people, for example. I am not saying that women should stay home, and keep their bodies covered. But while I have never read "Our Bodies, Ourselves," I have always thought of my body as my own, and my experiences as my own, even if they are common to all women. I mean, remember the controversy that this post sparked (I appear to have commented on this here)? It seems like the Jezzies are proving Volokh right, that we women view menstruation as a great bonding experience that we would hate to be left out of if they approve a pill that ends this monthly ritual!

But perhaps I'm too retro in my thinking, because by keeping through privacy and discretion such a clinical, dissociative distance between my head and the rest of my body, maybe it could be said that I never really "claim" my body as my own. Maybe it's not my body, because it's just an example of a woman's body, rather than a personal experience of my body. Wait, how does that make sense, You Straw Woman I Am Making Up, because I still inhabit this form and experience it, even if I don't write about it or share it with others. Well, I mean, I did blog a lot about having carpal tunnel and how it affects work and the various treatments I'm getting for it, but haha, it's like these hands have a mind of their own! I just had to learn to stop worrying about them and learn to love them for what crippled, constantly-in-pain things they are. Haha, last week I dropped a pan of bread because it was too heavy for my hands, and a few days before I had to put down a pot because holding it sent a twinging spasm down the median nerve, and now my fine motor skills are finally returning but my hand strength is not. Oh, you know what's that like, haha. Hugs all around!

Anyway, what do you think? I also officially invite Phoebe to join us in this conversation.