I just got back from guest lecturing in a Women’s Studies class called “The Body,” taught by our friend and colleague, Wendy Pearson. Here’s the course description:
How we understand the body, whether through scientific investigation or through its representation in media, literature or art, has material effects on how people’s lives and experiences are shaped. We will examine social and scientific constructions of the body, including concepts of beauty, health, fitness, sexuality, and questions of representation.
The course will also consider how our relationship – both personal and cultural — to our bodies shapes our sense of self and both prescribes and proscribes certain possibilities for how we may live our lives. We will look, for example, at the way in which only certain very fit bodies qualify as athletic or at the ways in which the relationship between musculature and class identity has changed since the early 20th century. We will examine particular social problems, such as our society’s difficulty with understanding the disabled body as sexual, the current cultural obsession with children’s body size, and the psychiatric and medical response to people who feel that their bodily sex does not match their gender. We will consider changing definitions of beauty and how that affects the ways in which different people understand themselves. We may also look at questions of representation, the various ways in which bodies and body parts are represented in the media and the issue of why some forms of representation of the nude body count as art while others are considered pornographic.
Sam and I shared the three-hour class tonight. She took the first half to talk about “Obesity Panics” and the trouble with framing obesity as an illness and its prevalence as an “epidemic.”
When I arrived shortly before the break, the packed room of 180 keen students was challenging her claim that there is something wrong with obesity being considered a disease. I got there just in time to hear Sam say that unlike cancer, obesity isn’t something you “get.” It’s something that the charts say you “are.”
After the break, it way my turn. My topic: “Fitness and Normative Bodies.” By the time Sam was done with them, they were afraid to say that there was a relationship between fitness and fatness. So hesitant were they to draw any connection that when I asked them about what measures or indicators they might use to judge whether they were physically fit or whether they’d made any progress, not a single person said anything about body weight or even about body composition.
We had a lively discussion about the impact of subtle forms of exclusion in fitness media and representations of fitness culture, in which only a narrow demographic of youthful, lean, toned, nondisabled, people, mostly men and mostly white are depicted. When women do appear in fitness media, there is a very narrow range of acceptable body types that pass muster.
I saw heads nodding (not nodding off!) when I said that engaging in physical activities that challenge us can be a real source of confidence and empowerment.
It took some convincing, but after hearing both of us I think the majority of the class was at least willing to entertain the idea that there is a pernicious form of exclusion going on in fitness culture. Though sometimes subtle, it makes it very difficult for people who do not fit the normative ideal body type to feel as if they belong.
This then becomes an equality issue, given that health, well-being, confidence, and a sense of your own power are all desirable social goods that can benefit everyone.
I ended by talking a bit about Olga Kotelko, who took up track and field at the age of 77 and had over 750 gold medals to her name by the time she turned 95 (at which age she died).
The upshot: a more inclusive fitness culture that doesn’t preoccupy itself with the narrow demographic who occupies “the normative body” would have enormous social and political benefits that extend way beyond physical fitness.
Thanks, Wendy, for an opportunity to talk to your class. What a fabulous idea for a course and what fun it was to be there!