Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Torn like an old sheet?


Oh sweet JESUS, why did I read that Elle essay linked in the Traister piece? It makes cesareans sound like fun. My entire body is doubled over in sympathy. But isn't that sort of visceral reaction just what Purves was aiming for? The whole point of the female gross-out confessional is to puncture our composure and drill down into the fears and insecurities we mostly suppress.

Breslin's missing the point* when she asks whether "writing about the female body [can] go beyond the literal, transcend the body itself, make a point that exposes something more than the fact that bad things happen when you leave your tampon in for 10 days?" This sort of writing is only superficially about the body; it's about the masks we wear to avoid thinking about our bodies, about the social niceties that feed ignorance, about our own reactions to being confronted with the fundamental universality of being embodied in meat sacks. (Whether it's successful is a function of the writer's skill: no comment on the Jezzies.) The price of silence, as you note, is high. But you're not satisfied with the gross-out status quo:
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.
The fundamental premise that one could lose one's individuality without keeping these things private strikes me as questionable, especially with respect to discussions of the body. When we tell people that they are unique and special, it's not usually because we're thinking of how their genitals don't look, smell, and taste like anyone else's. We're thinking about what's inside. If self-disclosure is a threat to individuality, confessions about one's hopes, dreams, values, fears, and general emotional state are a far bigger threat. But we praise the ability of literature (fiction and non-fiction) to speak universal truths about the human experience. Moe and Tracie's experiences are still theirs, no less than your experiences of carpal tunnel are yours, despite being shared. Your body may be an rivalrous good, but your discussions about your body aren't. And their choice to open up and share about their bodies is nothing like being dissected by street harassers. They're performing a public service!***

Which gets to Eugene Volokh's post: It was odd, and doesn't really get at the value of the gross-out girl sharing; he postulated the existence of an in-group of menstruators that women might want to be part of, when really it's about breaking down the idea that there is an in-group for which these bodily functions go in some neat, smooth, prescribed way. People are bonding over the idea that there's this immense diversity, and that their own diversity of experience doesn't put them outside some hypothetical norm they derived from 7th grade health class and Summer's Eve commercials.

That's why your idea that we should discuss the female body with honesty and openness but keep the personal body private is problematic and unsatisfying. General statements or impressions about our bodies are often not viewed as trustworthy. If I ask whether it's okay for part of my body to look a certain way, you might tell me that everyone looks a little different and it's fine, but I might think you are patronizing me or trying to spare my feelings or just cutting off an awkward and norm-violatingly explicit line of conversation. The gross-out girl response that "yes, mine looks like that too/no, mine looks like [something else weird]" cuts through all those uncertainties and is immediately reassuring. Recourse to the personal is the one way we can be certain that someone's not bullshitting us, and there's perhaps no sphere of human experience more vulnerable to euphemistic bullshitting than sex.****

But enough bloviating from me on the deep social significance of oversharing. I sent you your convertible mittens. Happy Valentine's Day! I hope they fit over your splints, if need be.


* Questioning the tone of the Jezebel pieces and comparing it with Sontag's cool prose is likewise off; everything on Jezebel is written with that gonzo air. But anyway.

** You do write about your sexuality, what with the mentions of romance and your relationship values and TD.

*** If gross-out girl columns trickle down and prevent even one man from buying his girlfriend Depends instead of maxi pads then it will be worthwhile.

**** And this is mostly about sex; I doubt this discussion would be going on if the writers in question were just being frank about their IBS.