Bodies of Work

An interview with Susan Bordo by Lisa Jervis, appeared in issue Maturity & Immaturity; published in 2003; filed under Consumer culture; tagged advertising, body image, eating disorders, gender, media.
Lisa Jervis talks to philosopher Susan Bordo

"Analysis is hard, it's complicated, and it disturbs the comfortable simplicity of familiar worldviews." So writes Susan Bordo, professor of English and women's studies at the University of Kentucky. And she should know: Her incisive writings on a wide variety of topics cut through thickets of controversy and rhetoric to produce a fine, elegant, and, above all, resonant analysis. On the intersection of psycho­logy and culture at the nexus of the eating-disorder epidemic: "Families exist in cultural time and space. So does 'peer pressure,' 'perfectionism,' 'body-image distortion,' 'fear of fat,' and all those other elements of individual and social behavior that clinical models have tended to abstract and pathologize." On the misperception that curbing sexual harassment means regulating employees' social lives: "[Harassment]—even when it involve[s] sexual gestures and remarks—[is] not the behavior of men confused about the rules of sexual courting…. [Harassers are] gender bullies…trying to restore a balance of power in which they [are] on top." On the supposedly hardwired nature of male sexual arousal: "Who is the electrician here? God? Mother Nature? Or Hugh Hefner? Practice makes perfect. And women have had little practice." Her books—including Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (1993), Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to O.J. (1997), and The Male Body (1999)—manage to transform the way you see the world, yet her points are so intuitive that even though you never would have come up with them yourself, they seem like mere common sense. On the eve of the publication of a 10th-anniversary edition of the groundbreaking Unbearable Weight, Bitch had a long, rambling, and often depressing conversation with Bordo about everything from the future of gender difference to Demi Moore's breasts.

The world has gotten more and more saturated with advertising imagery over the last decade. Is there also a qualitative difference in the images themselves?

One thing that's happened is what some people might call the postmodern turn in advertising. If there's a critique that is starting to emerge, then [marketers have] gotta answer that critique. If you've seen too much of a certain kind of image, well, [marketers are] gonna do something to turn that image a little bit on its head. This principle isn't rooted in any deep meaning other than the desire to just produce novelty. This makes analyzing ads very tricky. You can point to something going on in them, and someone can answer you right back, "Oh, but don't you see it's just a joke?" Parody and tongue-in-cheekness make any kind of sustained cultural criticism very difficult.

The bottom line for me is what the bodies in these ads are doing—what they look like and what they are saying to young people, who really don't care whether it's parody.

Do you think there's a difference in how the bodies look?

It depends on what day you ask me that, and what magazine I'm looking at. Certainly Vogue and the like have tended to be bastions of hyperthin, upper-class bodies. Teen magazines are offering a much more diverse spread of acceptable bodies. You could open a teen magazine, and if you were just looking at it and you weren't looking at Vogue or tuning in to The Practice and watching Lara flynn Boyle, you could get a very different sense of where the culture's at, or if you look at the Just My Size ads, or if you rent Real Women Have Curves, it looks like fleshy bodies have started to have a place in this culture. And so it's hard to know. Things are a little bit more mixed-up than they were 10 years ago—there's a recognition on the part of advertisers that they can make some money by displaying bodies that are rounder, fleshier, earthier.

Is that a good thing? It doesn't do anything to disturb the notion that what makes something worthy of display is whether it can make money for somebody.

I guess I've come to feel that we're sort of stuck with it. This is advanced consumer capitalism, and these are the basic conditions of our lives now, and I don't think there's very much hope of overturning them. We're left to tinker within the parameters of the system, and that can seem very depressing. On the other hand, as the mother of a young child, I do appreciate the little changes that I know can have an effect. I'm still worried about this culture, but I appreciate the little movements in the direction of greater acceptance of bodies that diverge from a certain norm, or [more varied] racial representations.

Of course, they also take as much as they give. Even though now, in terms of racial representation, there seems to be the valuing of more diverse nose shapes and skin color, swinging straight hair has become the dominant aesthetic. You certainly don't have the sense that we're celebrating all varieties of racial representation. But the little bits of changes can radiate out in very big ways. Again, when I think about my daughter growing up seeing herself reflected in the culture around her, if you multiply her by hundreds of thousands of little girls like her—that's a significant thing.

What are some of the most appalling or symptomatic images that you've seen lately?

I saw an ad in a parenting magazine [featuring] a little girl who was maybe 5 years old. She wasn't dressed up like a JonBenet; she didn't have lipstick on, she wasn't wearing sequins. [But] she had on a little jacket, which was fastened with a brooch right at her collarbone, so that it fell open and exposed her bare midriff—she was naked under the jacket. It didn't seem to call attention to itself as a hypererotic image, and you could see lots of parents thinking it was just cute. It's not any one image; it's all over the place, from Kmart ads and Halloween costumes to high fashion. There seems to be a way in which what we were once at least slightly disturbed by has now toppled into the realm of the normal, the cute.

[Another disturbing trend] has to do with the extent to which all images nowadays are digitally altered. It used to be I'd mention that to people and they'd go, "You're kidding; really?" No one is surprised anymore; but the fact that they know doesn't matter. We've become oblivious to something that has very profound consequences, and we're just accepting that these images are altering our notions of what bodies should look like. I fear so much for the generations of people who are growing up learning about the human body from ads—and they are. This is a generation that doesn't even know what wrinkles look like. There's a whole world [of artificial images] that have been completely denuded of anything that we currently categorize as a flaw. People now look at their [own real] bodies and all they see are collections of flaws. I'm sure you've seen that horrible show Extreme Makeover.

I haven't been able to bring myself to watch it.

It will normalize not just the occasional nose job or implant, but people approaching their bodies with the potential for complete transformation. On one episode, for example, a man had a chin job, an eye lift, tooth whitening, a tummy tuck, liposuction—all at the same time. [The doctors] acknowledge that it will hurt, but they gloss over it in such a comforting way. There they are, post-op, and the kindly surgeon is saying to them, "The worst is over, and you look fantastic." There's six weeks of recovery, and then they cut to the new person being greeted by family and friends, who are just bowled over. The people do look transformed—and if we use media images as our guide, they look a hell of a lot better. We would have thought of this as science fiction 40 years ago. You can imagine a science-fiction novel—in fact, I think there might have been one—in which a person enters some sort of chamber, and okay, now you can pick out the lips you want, and the ears you want, and the tummy you want, and emerge a different person.

And they insist, "I'm doing it for me!"

People find it so comforting to think of this in terms of their own empowerment. But who is this "me" you're talking about? Was she born outside of cultural time and space? Where did you get this idea that this "me" that you're doing it for needed to have breast implants? This is one of the reasons it's very frustrating to be a cultural critic. People will not accept the argument [that their desires are shaped by our culture]; they have so much invested in seeing it as about choice, and all the rhetoric of the ads, and all the cosmetic surgeons' pitches—these are experts, doctors, after all—are telling them that's what it's about. And then, of course, there are even some feminists who are arguing that this is about personal empowerment. But even if you can get the intellectual acknowledgment, it's overpowered by the cultural reality: that you will get the job, you will get the boyfriend, you will get the girlfriend. The argument just crumbles in the face of what people know about the culture, which is that they're going to be rewarded if they [conform to cultural beauty ideals]—and that's not a delusion.

It seems as though the only way in which things will significantly change is if it stops being rewarded. And that's going to take the efforts of very powerful individuals who are willing to be a little braver than they have been. Something that I don't see happening but that could have a powerful effect is for the image makers themselves to stop the insanity. For example, actresses of my generation who are willing to put their faces out there without cosmetic surgery. The Goldie Hawns, the Susan Sarandons—[for now,] they can all preserve that illusion of looking 30 with their surgeries. But that's not gonna last forever. Maybe it will take a few very public disasters [laughs] for them to help us stop the insanity. Over time, people will begin to feel the destructive effects. You can only keep yourself struggling on a diet for so long. After a point, these surgeries start to look like hell. You're fighting against an inevitable confrontation with the fleshy, vulnerable body that is real human substance.

I imagine a both entertaining and ghastly way to spend a day with a bunch of friends would be renting movies from 15 years ago and, when you see the same actresses, compare their breasts and their noses. I mean, Demi Moore—my students didn't know [she had implants]. So I brought in About Last Night and showed them.

Are there any bright spots?

I can think of three moments when I was just so proud of actresses. Jamie Lee Curtis in More magazine. That was great—not just the body, or that she allowed it to be photographed [without being] digitally retouched, but the fact that she admitted to all her surgeries. [Other actresses] lie about them all the time. And then Kate Winslet, for protesting [British] GQ, who so altered her body [on its February 2003 cover] that she didn't recognize it. She said, Not only doesn't that look like me, but I wouldn't want to look like that.

But she has lost a tremendous amount of weight.

There was a time when you looked at her and said, "Ahh, yes!" When she took her clothes off in Titanic and there was that body, or when she walked across the sand to Harvey Keitel in Holy Smoke and she was completely naked—my god, that was such a transgressive moment. It was a moment when every woman out there who is size 14 and over cheered her. And that sore that constantly gets picked was a little bit healed.

But then what happens when she loses weight? I know I feel betrayed. It's worse than looking at someone like Lara flynn Boyle.

I do feel betrayed by these women. [Especially] Susan Sarandon—when someone so political gives in to the pressure to look 30 when she's 56, it's deeply depressing to me. She could have tremendous power. So could J. Lo, who has lost so much weight.

You mentioned earlier that there were three inspiring examples, but I don't think we got to the third.

The third one is Charlotte Rampling. I saw her in Under the Sand and thought, She might not have had surgery! And then I saw a real close-up magazine photo of her and it was clear that yeah, this is her face. There was no surgery, it was not digitally retouched; it was the first time in a long time I've seen a woman of my age looking like a woman looks at my age. And looking beautiful. Her eyelids sagged. She had lines around her mouth. She had little pouches along the jaw. She was beautiful.

The self-consciousness that we were talking about with respect to advertising is also popping up around plastic surgery. I'm thinking of the Sex and the City episode where Samantha has her first Botox injection, and the doctor tells her that she won't be able to express anger with her face and may have to say things like, "I am so angry right now!" And then later, Candice Bergen, as a Vogue editor, says, "I am so angry right now!"

To me that is a prime example of the way in which what some people would call postmodern culture can co-opt cultural critique and evaporate it. In some ways, I find it even worse, because they can avoid the notion that they are perpetuating this by saying, "Look, we're exposing it." But what they're doing is [robbing the critique] of any real, serious cultural importance or cultural power.

It's crazy that we should be spending so much time talking about [celebrities' bodies]. But it is indicative of a kind of commitment to a base level of reality that the culture is not committed to. So those of us who are disturbed by it find ourselves a lot of the time trying to just expose the illusions and chronicle the [disappointments]. It's like people keeping track of the fatalities in a war. I don't want to overplay that comparison, especially right now, but we chalk 'em up.

Have you seen those ads for Crest Rejuvenating Effects with Vanessa Williams saying, "With all we do to keep our faces young-looking, how can we forget our smile?" Our teeth are the one part of our body that can't wrinkle or sag. Now they're talking about keeping your teeth looking young?

Again, here I just see consumer capitalism at the bottom of it. If you can find a part of the body that hasn't been [used to make] money, that you can make money off of, go for it. That's the ruling principle. And you've got so many people whose creativity is engaged in developing products. I think a lot of the doctors and dentists don't think that what they're all about is money; they think about helping people and exercising their own creativity and ingenuity and professional training. You do not need a conspiracy—all you need is a whole bunch of people doing their jobs.

What are your thoughts on those Herbal Essence shampoo ads? All those fake orgasms really creep me out. But I like the one with all those guys who come in and start shampooing the lawyer in the middle of the courtroom. I find it hilarious, with the soundtrack and the male backup singers. The industry group Advertising Women of New York gave that one a Grand Ugly Award in 2000, part of their Good, Bad, and Ugly Awards—basically an award for the most sexist ad of the year. And I think, Okay, there's so much stuff out there that's way worse.

Waaaay worse. Those are a bit tacky at times, but I would never think of them as particularly sexist—not given the range of things out there. [But] people don't feel comfortable seeing women as sexual subjects, and to the extent that there is an orgasm being performed here, people are uncomfortable. And that discomfort—they're not conscious enough of the source of it, so they just kind of translate that into sexism.

The really cynical part of me wonders whether this isn't just such a neat target, a good scapegoat—as opposed to the universe of women who have been plasticized and [digitally altered]. Those are just part of the wallpaper of our lives, and to single out one would be to indict the entire advertising industry.

In Unbearable Weight, you wrote, "Resistance and transformation are indeed continual and creative, and subversive responses are possible even under the most oppressive circumstances." Here we've been talking about all this depressing stuff—so what are some fertile modes of resistance and subversion that we have open to us right now?

Everybody has something they can do. Parents have an enormous role to play. I can't tell you how many times the women in my classes who have eating disorders have told me that the moment when they really felt like they could not hold out against the culture is when they realized that their mom or their dad was in solidarity with it: when they saw that their mom was just as obsessed about her thighs [as they were], or when their father said to them, "Oh, you're getting a little chubby." I find that the students of mine who are most empowered to hold out are ones who have families that are still giving them a really strong sense of affirmation of their bodies. Parents have got to take a serious look at the damage that they are doing to their children. If they want to hook their own sense of self onto what they look like, okay, but think about what that's saying to your child.

What about those of us who aren't parents?

It's really about making a culture for other people. Your child, or your friends. I realize there's a certain amount of power I have as a teacher—I'm no movie star, but in the eyes of my students, what I do counts.

Right now I'm in a very heavy time in my life, and there's a part of me that wishes I were thinner [laughs]. And then there's a part of me that feels, I'm a vibrant, attractive person who is overweight. And this is what they're going to see—they're going to see someone who represents an alternative.

Activism [often] winds up helping with your personal struggle. There is nothing that gives one a sense of perspective, and that takes the focus away from one's own body, like some kind of political action. To shift your gaze away from your own body, to do what you can to create some different cultural conditions—your own thighs do not seem that important.

Here's another quote from your work: "Our culture seems newly captivated by biological determinism." Why do you think there's such a mania to ascribe everything—from infidelity to rape to consumer habits—to hardwired gender difference?

There are a lot of different answers to that. One is that it satisfies an existential craving: the desire to know things with certainty and universality in an age in which we are less sure than ever of what we actually know. The idea that we could map the human genome, and be able to know exactly what diseases people are going to develop later in life—we're really fascinated by the possibil­ities of this exhaustive knowledge of ourselves. It's that combination of living in a culture in which knowledge is really up for grabs, and being all the more fascinated with the possibility of nailing it down.

That's just a piece of it, but I think the reality of growing up in this culture today is that gender and race are in incredible flux. The idea that there are two races or two genders—I don't think that young people growing up today experience their lives that way. [That there are two races] is a lie, of course, but I think that until the last 15 years, people really did think that there's black and there's white, and then there are various ethnicities. [For example,] I think people tended to think of Asian as not a racial category—they thought of it as an ethnicity much more often. The concept of the biracial, for instance—and I'm talking about the consciousness of most people—is new. People didn't think that way. [They used] the old racist way of figuring out who's black: One drop of black blood and you're black. Everybody else is white.

Now that our experience has made all these categories increasingly useless, we are all the more excited in these theories that revive them for us. There's a whole new scientific literature that is basically arguing some version of men are from Mars, women are from Venus. [These ideas assert that] even though everything around you might suggest otherwise [laughs], the comforting reality underneath all that cultural diversity is a very stable world in which boys are boys and girls are girls, and black is black and white is white, and sexuality is a matter of the genes.

Do you think that people are trying to escape societal responsibility for things like rape and racism?

I would say these theories allow people to feel okay about themselves. I think that most people don't experience it on even an intellectual level as the idea of responsibility. I think it's much more of an immediate soother to them—it's not mediated by ideas. It's so supportive of their lives; you know, it tells them that they don't have to change.

I can see how that could operate when it comes to infidelity, the notion that men naturally need to spread their seed. But with something like rape—if I were a man I would be horrified by the notion that it's hardwired into me.

I think if most men actually took it that literally, they would want to disown it, too, but I think the way they hear it is that all these things that feminists have taken them to task for, or—let's not even put it on feminists—that their wives have complained about, are not in their power. It's a perspective that is very justifying—the last 20 years of challenge [to gender roles], they don't have to worry about it.

If you take the long view, this idea of men and women being so very different really only began to exercise its grip in the West in the 19th century. It's a very recent idea, and it's already starting to crumble. Hundreds of years from now, if we're still around, people just might be writing the history of 1850 to 2050 as that period in which men and women were seen as radically different types of human beings. [Laughs.]

And now for something completely different: Let's talk about male nudity on film.

Well, there was a moment in which we were seeing a lot of penises all of a sudden.

I feel like we saw Harvey Keitel's penis many times.

More times than any of us really wanted to see it. I think that what has happened is not so much that we now see penises as routinely as we see the female body, but that there has been tremendous change in the representation of the male body as an aesthetic object. Penises, I think, are still pretty much under wraps.

Even in Y Tu Mamá También, which has boy butts all over the place, the penises were part of the "oh, look, he's on his way to the lake" moments you talk about in The Male Body.

Boy butts, and man butts, are all over the place. I think the butt has definitely come out of the closet. To me, the key is not so much are the clothes off or on, but whether the body is portrayed as vulnerable or armored. And the male body has always been portrayed as armored, whether its clothes are on or off. What's happened with the female body is that it has become increasingly armored. Taking one's clothes off is no big deal—actresses do it routinely—but now they take off their clothes and what they've got on is a suit of body armor. It just happens to be made out of skin and plastic.

I think part of the reason the penis is not exposed very much is that you have to make a choice: Either it's gonna be soft—and that isn't acceptable unless it's done as part of this streaker moment—but if you show it hard, then you'd be going into what most people would regard as pornography. So the acceptable way of representing the male body is to use a pair of briefs, where you can see the outline, the suggestion of potency. So what you get are these very well-hung underwear models [laughs].

I thought that whatever was right about Y Tu Mamá También—and I didn't particularly like that movie—was really offset by the fact that [the female lead] had breast implants. It was such a bad note that they couldn't find an actress whose body would be in accord with the values that the movie is arguing for.

The movie—those young boys overflowing with hormones—resonated with my adolescence. To see that portrayed so authentically was fantastic. Of course, I'd love to see the girl's version.

What are the stories about adolescent girls and their experiences that we have? On the one hand, we've got The Virgin Suicides—the idea of a coming-of-age movie in which all the girls commit suicide is kind of depressing. Then you have Blue Crush, which was entertaining, but what are young girls being told? It's a contradictory message: Yeah, go for it in terms of sports and physical activity, and don't be afraid. But you'd better be just as cute as punch, and have a perfect, toned body. And there's still that thing with her and the guy. [Though the focus of Blue Crush is supposedly the protagonist's quest for surfing glory, she takes time off to resist and then succumb to the advances of a hunky, bland football player. —Eds.]

There's a [pattern] in a lot of movies addressed to girls that I find really disturbing, which is that [the main characters] are always playing hard to get. It's supposed to stand for their independence and their liberation—but ultimately, of course, they wind up having the relationship with the man. But they start out rejecting him. I have a feeling that a lot of young girls, when they watch these movies—I'm guessing here, I haven't done a survey—measure the distance between their own emotional lives and the life of the heroine. And it makes them feel ashamed of themselves, because they're needier. There's an emphasis on the female hero who is not soft and needy, like other girls.

Like real adolescents of any gender.

Exactly. I still haven't seen a movie about adolescent girls that would represent their vulnerability—the thing that Y Tu Mamá También does for the boys—without making them into wimps.

What are some other film trends you've noticed?

It seems to me that really interesting things about race are happening in movies: this new breed of white boy who identifies with black culture—this set of cultural images is exposing the impoverishment of white culture. Eminem. Save the Last Dance. The white kids in Drumline and Barbershop. The point is to demonstrate how the white kid, in order to have a full, rich life, has to do what bell hooks would call "eating black culture." As obnoxious as that might be, if you think of the experience of culture as a series of vast contradictions—which I think it is—this is the other side to the fact that we've got Bush, a fraternity boy, for president. [Laughs.] [What these movies are portraying] is the anti-fraternity boy, or the white boy who's trying to get into brotherhood with his black brothers.

These movies do seem to be saying something different from the mostly white films that use black characters as the repository of earthy, nurturing, or spiritual values, like, to pick a recent example, The Legend of Bagger Vance. The movies you're talking about feature a white kid who puts him- or herself completely in a black world.

Exactly. Though bell hooks might see it as eating black culture, it isn't exactly like that, because the dominant culture [in these films] is the black neighborhood or the black college. And the power is held by the black kids at school. And the white kid becomes a part of that—he or she is incorporated, rather than he or she incorporates. So I'm intrigued by that. I don't know exactly where it's going. It's too early to tell.

You've mentioned how much being a parent has affected what draws your attention; how do you deal with raising a daughter among all these gender imperatives?

My daughter, who is only 4 years old, so far is very bi-gendered. She's got the toughest time, because people keep trying to push her into one category or the other. And she does not naturally fall into those categories.

You must spend a lot of time thinking about how to support her bi-genderedness.

A lot, a lot. Well, first of all, I let her dress however she wants to. And that may seem [obvious], but it's hard, as a parent, to do that. Often what she wants to put on is really truly disgusting. But I recognize that for her the key is that it looks like what the boys wear: the loose t-shirts with the short sleeves and some kind of ugly design on the front. And the shorts have to be really baggy. And the colors are all just horrible.

She's been telling me since she was very young that she's a boy. And I used to tell her, No, you're a girl. And I did it not because I was invested in her being a girl, but because I didn't like that people were presenting the choices to her and she was being told to choose. Why should she have to choose? I saw this process of gender attribution happening to her, and I was very conscious of not wanting people to tell her who she was. Why can't she be the little butch that she is? So when she told me she was a boy, I would say, No, you're a girl. And then I would go on to say, But that doesn't mean you aren't strong, and you can't throw the ball, and [do all the other things she likes that the culture has coded as male for her]. I have stopped doing that. All of these convoluted explanations [of gender identity]—it's not at a level that she could make any sense of. It's too intellectual. The important thing is to let her be whoever she thinks she is.

She might turn out to be a truly transgendered individual, someone who does deeply feel that she's a boy. And I would never dream of trying to talk her out of that if that turns out to be the case. But at this stage of her life, we don't really know what it all means.

I thought we were living in the post–Title IX age, but in my daughter's preschool, which is pretty progressive, the girls hardly even move their bodies. They sit there. They're dressed in little dresses and things, they don't play with the trucks, they don't play with the cars, they don't run around and roughhouse with each other. And that's what the boys do. My daughter looks at this, and the thing that bothers me the most about it is that she's developing a disdain for girls. I just find that very sad.

It's surprising to me that she would be the only girl who wants to play that way.

I don't really know for sure, but I think part of it is that these kids' parents—we're talking about middle-class and upper-middle-class people—are really into that commodity culture of the kids' world. It's all about fashion, and kids as fashion, and making your child look as precious as can be. This is a generation of parents who are acting on their children through the culture. And let's face it, consumerism is fun. It's a place where we get tremendous pleasure and excitement, and it's really hard to resist that.

The only thing that ever makes me feel better is looking at my daughter. She's still at that moment when it hasn't yet gotten to her, and you see the potential of human beings. You see what things could be like.

"Analysis is hard, it's complicated, and it disturbs the comfortable simplicity of familiar worldviews." So writes Susan Bordo, professor of English and women's studies at the University of Kentucky. And she should know: Her incisive writings on a wide variety of topics cut through thickets of controversy and rhetoric to produce a fine, elegant, and, above all, resonant analysis.

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