Monthly Archives: August 2011

Ecclescock: Deep thoughts on the construction and consequences of oppositional sex

This email exchange started after a full-frontal nude photo of Christopher Eccleston (who played the Ninth Doctor on Doctor Who) was shared on Twitter. Part of the response, in addition to squeeing over Naked!Eccleston, was, essentially, “penises look funny”/”male genitals look weird” — which is a common pronouncement whenever groups of (cis, mostly straight) women start talking about naked (cis) men, and thus served as a starting point to a conversation about the origins, and ramifications, of this meme.

Emily: Speaking of opposites combined, the conversation around Ecclescock on Twitter bewilders me.  I don’t really get the whole disgust-desire that seems to be a huge current running through some heterosexualities…

The formations that produce oppositional sex are… odd…  way odder to me than any given sexed part’s appearance…

Arwyn: I dunno. Like I said, I think all genitals (and many other body parts) look weird upon close study, but I am one of those people who has been known to freak myself out by contemplating my own tongue too closely, soooo…

But yeah. I’m inclined to say that some of it has to do with the male gaze, and cultural training to find only airbrushed, appropriately-tucked-away cis women’s genitals*, and bodies generally, attractive. Even (nominally/primarily) straight women don’t escape that programming, and so are boggled when confronted with the rare sight of non-airbrushed, cis male bodies. (We could argue that even the rare nude cis male bodies we are exposed to are designed by/for a male gaze; either a gay male gaze, or an aspirational straight male gaze — or some repressed combination thereof.)

(*Because heavens forbid we be forced to gaze upon errant inner labia that refuse to be contained. Or fat vulvas, or hairy vulvas, or asymetrical vulvas, or vulvas with interesting, bold coloration. And of course, intersex or non-cis vulvas mustn’t even be whispered of.)

But it does play into/arise from the creation of the myth of oppositional sex. Women are pleasing to gaze upon, therefore men cannot be. Women are beautiful, therefore men cannot be. Women are the attractors, therefore men cannot be.

I go through phases where I find some types (sexes) of bodies more compelling visually than others, as my sexuality naturally fluctuates, and I haven’t escaped entirely the cultural programming that positions women as generally more appealing, (and I’m still convinced most genitals simply look weird), but yeah, I don’t get why the things that are posited to make men “men” (penises, body hair — especially back hair, and don’t get me started on that BS) are often also culturally positioned as “unattractive”.

If you ever figure it out, let me know. :-P

Emily: Ha I’ll get on it :P

Oh I do agree that bodies do look weird upon close study – especially appendages (toes! fingers!) – but you know me, I’m curious about why and how those kinds of perceptions occur.  Tucked-away is really the right phrase, it’s about proportion and all those classical aesthetics, nai?  It’s interesting to me seeing Michelangelo’s David, because the way he sculpts David’s cock really is in proportion to the rest of his body and hence is visually appealing. Which clashes with the phallic idea of “bigger is better” of both straight and gay male gazes just a bit.

But it does play into/arise from the creation of the myth of oppositional sex. Women are pleasing to gaze upon, therefore men cannot be. Women are beautiful, therefore men cannot be. Women are the attractors, therefore men cannot be.

This.  A lot.  And I definitely agree with what you say about the male gaze.  Which is why it’s so interesting that (nominally/primarily) het women internalise that position, because it’s the gaze without the desire, the value-judgment without the end.  Not surprising — cos of course we take on the values of the dominant — but complicated to occupy.

But then this male gaze clashes with another cultural code: the normalising of male bodies as universal, and then general valuing of cis-maleness.  Which is why a cis man’s penis is “weird” but not usually “disgusting” or whatever?  So there’s a kind of moderating, an ambivalence there.  Not valued or desired, but not abject, either.

Where like you say, the “uncontained” bodies that don’t fit this morphology of undesirable-but-acceptable bodies are doubly fucked.  If it was a trans woman’s body pre-SRS, that’s not moderated by privilege, the bad feeling is intensified — being both a liminal body (a clash of codes about how sexed bodies are supposed to be) and being pretty low on the hierarchy of bodies in general.

And of course what’s fascinating is those kinds of abjected bodies end up as niche fetishes for the cis male gaze (disgust-desire)…  where there’s no comparative commercial market of male bodies that plays into the ambivalences of cis women’s gazing/desiring (though I think it persists more as a form of vernacular culture)…

[later]

And following on from that thought about abjected bodies, it matters that Christopher Eccleston is a white dude — and hence not abject, not a categorical object of disgust.  Where a black men’s cock may well be experienced as threat-disgust-desire depending on racial imaginary, rather than “weird.”

Arwyn:

But then this male gaze clashes with another cultural code: the normalising of male bodies as universal, and then general valuing of cis-maleness.  Which is why a cis man’s penis is “weird” but not usually “disgusting” or whatever?  So there’s a kind of moderating, an ambivalence there.  Not valued or desired, but not abject, either.

Like, we’re not allowed to be disgusted by the cis male body (unless, of course, it’s not white, not thin/”fit”, not appropriately unhairy, not typical/apparently able, etc), but we’ve not been taught to find it appealing in the ways we have the idealized cis female body, so the ambivalence comes out in a feeling of “weirdness”.

There’s also something about the prudery of a culture that almost never SEES a typical naked body, and especially not a frontal male nude, the David excepted (and oft mocked for the very proportionality you pointed out). To some extent, I think the “weirdness” is also simple unfamiliarity, and especially unfamiliarity of the range of humanity (as opposed to specific familiarity with one or a small number of sets of genitals, eg those of a lover).

Emily: So the solution really is: more nudity!

Arwyn: So much yes.

Also tacos.

Emily: And burritos.  A full range of snacking options.

Fat and pregnant and beautifully blessed

And more than a wee bit exhausted. Especially since we’re also1 buying a house and moving.

But, I took some time out last week from packing, panicking, and sleeping to be blessed by a lovely group of friends, both near and far. And, for the first time, got myself hennaed, a gorgeous stylized tree right on my already-lovely fat and pregnant belly.2

a picture of the breasts, torso and stomach of Arwyn, a white woman.  she is wearing a black bra, and her 38.5 week pregnant stomach is covered with a large hennaed oak tree, henna paste still on and quite dark.  ps she is gorgeous.

Right after finishing, henna paste still on

I walked around for the next week randomly smiling as I remembered this was under my clothes:

another photo of Arwyn, this time a full body shot taken in a mirror with the phone she's holding upright in her left hand. She's wearing glasses, jeans and a navy blue blouse with white stars and white-and-rouge moons which is tucked up underneath her breasts to expose her pregnant belly.  her belly is covered with a large hennaed oak tree, skin stained light red-brown by the henna. she is smiling slightly, and remains gorgeous

And the next day, after flaking off the paste.

But also because this3 was echoing in my ears:

And so, we offer this prayer today, for you, Arwyn:

May you
be valued and cherished,
as a woman, a writer, a healer
a lover, a partner, a mother,

May you
be given help when you need it

May you
love this child fiercely, and gently

May you
have the strength to seek connection, not control

May you
be surprised,
and answer “here I am” when you hear the call,
and may you bend like a willow tree
in the face of the unexpected

May you
forgive freely, forgiving even the unforgivable,
and be forgiven in return

And finally, and perhaps most importantly,
may you be kind to yourself, to your children, partner, family and friends
and be treated kindly in return.

And for your child:

May it grow up given every chance to thrive, to flourish, to live a life as rich and full of experience as can be. May the child live free from harm, from trauma, from unnecessary pain and suffering. And most of all, may it be it happy and loved, by you, [The Man], [the Boychick], and all in its life.

This, please. In these last hours, days, perhaps weeks4, I walk in the hope of this.

  1. WHAT THE HELL WERE WE THINKING OMG NEVER DO THIS NEVER EVER EVER EVERRRRRRRR
  2. The Fetus was not making it easy, doing barrel rolls more or less the entire time, but the lovely Nichol did perfectly anyway.
  3. A blessing written by a dear friend rendered by distance unable to be there herself, but whose presence was felt via her words, read aloud by those there.
  4. Please, at least one week.

The false dichotomy of “body” and “mind”

We speak of the body and mind as though they are separate, when they are anything but, when one rises from and is rooted in the other, the mind not a distinct form but an integral function of the flesh. To speak of I is not to give voice to an inner humunculus, but to express the tip of my nose, the jiggle of my thighs, the oft-ignored deep fascia of my pelvis. Not objects, these, but subject; not multiple, but me.

When anxiety spikes, it is my heart that pounds, my muscles that tense and yearn to strike.

When I feel the deep rise of my abdomen as air fills my lungs, it is my mind that temporarily stills.

When my muscles ache and spasm, it is my mood that turns sour, my temper that quickens.

When my thoughts race, it is my limbs that cannot remain still, my heart and breath that race to keep up.

When I give massage, it is my thoughts and my attention as well as my hands that focus on the receiver, that determine whether that person feels touched.

When I finally, finally sleep it is my muscles that ache less, my thoughts that grow sharper.

To talk of the mind and body as though they are two, separable, is a sometimes-useful fiction, yet this distinction nevertheless is a lie that leads to a life disjointed, the seamless whole sundered into incomplete components; alone each proves inadequate to explain our experience.

This lie is responsible for the dehumanization of hospitals, the depersonalizing of psychiatry, the disembodiment of blogging. We can pretend that persons don’t matter when we’re treating bodies: kick partners and doulas out of birth rooms; offer weight-gain-countering drugs that deny us the ability to speak; deride women for breastfeeding in public when “pumped breastmilk is just as good.” It’s a false duality at least as old as Descartes, but pervades nearly every aspect of our modern life.

What would it mean to reject this notion, to embrace the person-as-whole?

Can we even begin to imagine an answer, given the limitations of our language? “My” nose, “my” pelvis, “my” moods — these imply a belonging-to other than each other, other than the sum-of-all that creates — that is — the me.

Perhaps start with imagining: what would it feel like to recognize ourselves as whole? To be known as whole? To inhabit our entire body? Investigate the lusts of your left pinky toe, let your right shoulder lead, become aware of the impact of anger and joy and boredom on your elbows, your ass, your eyebrows. Imagine a world where such was commonplace, where the self was seen as complete, inseparable from its component molecules, whatever their configuration.

Imagine — and remember it is your left pinky toe, your right shoulder, your fascia and face and elbows and eyebrows and lympocytes and synapses and hormones and neurons that do so.

More links? Yes, but this time with more Arwyn!

Been missing your semi-weekly dose of RMB? Wondering when the hell I’ll write again?1 Worry no longer, for here are TWO, TWO posts in one! You just have to click through to read ‘em. CLICK!

Firstly: Yours truly, for reasons incomprehensible to same, was asked to participate in a roundtable for Bitch Magazine, on race and racism in and around the mommy blogosphere. It appears in issue 52 (on newstands and in mailboxes sooooon!) — but is also available to you, Internet Denizen, right now. There are several amazing bloggers (plus me) who weighed in on some interesting questions, and it’s well worth a thorough read.

Renee Martin: I created my blog to keep a promise to my children that I would do my best to make the world a little better for them. Having said that, no matter how many times I declare that my blog is a mommy blog, it is steadfastly denied. I firmly believe that it is in part due to my race, and in part due to that fact that my idea of parenting is far more involved than writing about diapers, sleepless nights, and recipes. I believe that raising well-rounded children means dealing directly with any issue that they might potentially face—including but not limited to race, gender, sexuality, ageism, disability, etc. The idea that mommy blogs should be safe, fluffy spaces is absurd, and comes directly from the fact that those assigned the label are white, middle class, cisgender, and largely straight.

Secondly: Emily Manuel, Taco Pusher Extraordinaire, put up some ramblings (me), rantings (us), and righteous points (her) over at Tiger Beatdown, on the problems with allowing kyriarchy to control the conversation around birth, pregnancy, contraception, transitioning, and tacos.2 This is where to click if you’ve missed my ALL CAPS ravings recently.

Arwyn: All around me I see people arguing positions I want to see succeed try to argue within the other side’s delusion, and it sends me around the bend. Why are we so damn bad at reclaiming the conversation? Why do we let right wingers be so damn GOOD at it?

Emily: I’ve been thinking about that for a long time and I’m still not sure I have the answer. I think that the Left is terrible at strategy and some of the reason is that we don’t attack ourselves.

When the last anti-abortion bill was defeated here in La the group fighting it were like, ok time for a rest. And I was like NO, time to attack! Time to think about ways to create systemic change, to aim to achieve something rather than prevent (so what do we want? state-sponsored contraception, or more funding for PP, or something - and preferably something really big). Stop playing defense. And they were like wow, we never thought of that.

At worst you take away the energy of the Right, at best you succeed – it’s win/win. There’s very [few] people on the Left that do this consistently… whereas I think the Right does this constantly, they launch a million bloody REALLY AMBITIOUS bills and sooner or later some of them hit the target.

Coming soon — more belly pics, now with added henna! Pretty words on the false dichotomy of “body” and “mind”! And, if I can convince her to grant permission, further Arwyn/Emily ramblings, this time on Ecclescock3 and the construction and ramifications of oppositional sex!

  1. You and me both.
  2. Pull quote centers around left/right politics, but post contains more on birth, bodily autonomy, and the need for a new conversation around pregnancy.
  3. LINK NOT SAFE FOR WORK. Unless you work at a pr0n shop. Or Highly Cultural Nudity-As-Art Venue. Or home. Or with a boss who really, really likes Christopher Eccleston. Lucky you.

I’m alive! To prove it, have some links!

So I’m sort of, y’know, done? With this whole parenting-pregnancy-housebuying-blogging-daily-living thing? And my need for, and frequent inability to achieve, sleep has pretty much taken over my life? And yet, annoyingly, the world continues.

Fortunately, other writers have continued to, unlike me, write:

Both Salon and bluemilk have tackled the bruhaha around Madison Young (activist, artist, sex worker) and her Becoming MILF exhibit.

Salon:

The emotional response to her public breast-feeding conveys the Madonna/whore dichotomy better than Young could ever hope to do with her kitschy quilt and breast milkshakes. The idea that there is something inherently prurient about a porn star breast-feeding plays right into that classic either-or thinking: Her breasts are erotic in one venue, so they can’t be wholesome in another.

bluemilk (if you only read one of these articles, make it this one):

There is something else worth considering about Furry Girl’s criticisms of Young, and that is the way in which she can’t distinguish between mothers and mothering. Yes, Young’s daughter can’t give permission for being included in her mother’s artwork, neither can mine give permission for my writing. But who owns Young’s experience of motherhood? Who owns mine? Where do Young’s and my experiences of early motherhood and our desire to explore these all-consuming aspects of our lives end, and our children’s ownership of them begin? Can Young, who describes her devotion to her baby daughter so lovingly, not be trusted to know? Does being sexual as women (or even sexually objectified unintentionally) spill dangerously over into our responsibilities as mothers? Does it prevent us from good mothering?

These are particularly poignant questions for me, given the reactions to my recent public discussion of sex.

Also on the topic of breastfeeding, Scientific American reports that Breastfeeding Reduces Risk of Hard-to-Treat Breast Cancer among African-American Women:

The researchers analyzed data from the Black Women’s Health Study, which has collected health information from some 59,000 women for the past 16 years, focusing on 318 cases of ER-/PR- breast cancer and 457 cases of estrogen receptor- and progesterone receptor-positive (ER+/PR+) cancer. Palmer and her team found that black women with breast cancer who had two or more children and didn’t breastfeed them were 50 percent more likely to have the ER-/PR- form of breast cancer than those who had two children and breastfed them.

And a note on language: in hypothesizing some other potential explanations for the difference, the post declares African-descended women have “tougher immune systems to cope with endemic diseases of sub-Saharan Africa” (emphasis added). While at first glance, this might appear a benign phrasing, it seems to me another instance of the animalization of Black peoples; other, just-as-accurate ways of phrasing the same concept might include “more advanced”, “highly evolved”1, “smarter”, etc. But these would require different cultural conceptualizations of race.2

And I feel like I owe you so much more in the way of linkage (and to be sure, there have been some amazing posts I’ve encountered in the blogosphere recently, and please feel free to leave more, your own or others, in the comments), but, well, see aforementioned done-ness.

PS No one say this doneness is a sign of immanent birth. It’s not allowed to be. We’re still weeks away from closing on the house, so if you’re going to send vibes, send stay-in-and-healthy vibes, please. One of the few things worse than dealing with another few weeks of this would be The Man using up all his vacation time babymooning — and then still have to move. With a newborn. So, just, no.3

ETA OMG PONY DOCTOR WHO!

This is only quite possibly the best thing in the history of everything. Because pony Doctor. And bad French. You’re welcome.

  1. OK, technically we’re all equally evolved, because we’ve all been on the planet equally long, and therefore have evolved the same amount, if in very, very subtly different ways.
  2. I also have questions about the accuracy of generalizations that characterize sub-Saharan Africa as more disease-ridden, and inherently and long-term so, than other places, but am not knowledgeable enough about evolutionary epidemiology to make any challenges to this assertion.
  3. We’d survive, obviously; I’d manage somehow. I just don’t want to, ta.