Friday, August 08, 2008

The Inside and Outside of Bodies and Transgression of Boundaries

I'm reading a really interesting book right now by Robyn Longhurst, called Bodies: Exploring Fluid Boundaries. She is attempting to embody geography, to bring material bodies into academic discourse, and she makes some very interesting points. So I thought I would like to share a few cool quotes.

First, on "managerial bodies in public space", she writes:
I argue, first, that highly tailored, dark-coloured (often black, dark grey or navy) business suits function to seal the bodies of (men and women) managers. Firm, straight lines and starched creases give the appearance of a body that is impervious to outside penetration. They also give the appearance of a body that is impervious to the dangers and threats of matter from inside the body making its way to the outside. It is considered inappropriate for matter to make its way from the inside to the outside of bodies (for example, farting, burping, urinating, spitting, dribbling, sneezing, coughing, having a ‘runny nose’, crying, and sweating) in most inner city workplaces. This suited, professional, respectable body, however, can never be guaranteed. Like all bodies it is continually monitored and disciplined but inevitably proves itself to be insecure.

It made me wonder, why are we disgusted and/or embarrassed and/or frightened by the transgression of things on the inside of our bodies appearing on the outside? For instance, blood:

An advertisement for sanitary napkins (pads)... showed blue liquid being poured on and seeping into the pad. The aim seemed to be to demonstrate the pad's absorbency... Although the pad is designed to absorb menstrual blood (various shades of red) the advertisers choose to use a blue liquid to illustrate the product's absorbency capacity.
If advertisers were to use red fluid to represent blood they might invoke in viewers and potential customers feelings of dirtiness, disgust and even death that would dissuade them from purchasing the product. Clear blue liquid, on the other hand, is often associated with purity and cleanliness. There are potential links with running water, the colossal cleaning capacity of the ocean, blue granules in cleaning products and laundry powers, and blue rinses (both for clothes and for (often wealthy) elderly women’s greying hair). It is also inevitable that a connection may be made with the term ‘blue blood’. Blue blood refers to

that which flows in the veins of old and aristocratic families … who claimed never to have been contaminated by Moorish, Jewish, or other foreign admixture; the expression probably originated in the blueness of the veins of the people of fair complexion as compared with those of dark skin.(Compact Oxford English Dictionary 1991:147)

On all accounts blue blood seems to be preferred over and above red blood.

But of course, women leak red. This transgression of bodily boundaries relates also to pregnant women in public places. She says:

When pregnant women occupy the public spaces (of Rational Man) they are often represented as ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas 1966:35). Women are often thought to threaten and disrupt a social system that requires them to remain largely confined to private space during pregnancy. Pregnant women can be seen to occupy a borderline state that disturbs identity, system and order by not respecting borders, positions and rules. The pregnant body, it is thought, threatens to expel matter from inside – to seep and leak. The pregnant woman may vomit (morning sickness), cry (she is constructed as ‘overly’ emotional), need to urinate more frequently, produce colostrum which may leak from her breasts, have a ‘show’ appear, have her ‘waters break’, and sweat with the effort of carrying the extra weight of her body. Even more than these leakages, she ‘threatens’ to split her one self into two – another human being is about to cross the boundary of the ‘eroticised orifice’ – the vagina (Grosz 1990:88). The pregnant body is neither subject nor object but rather exemplifies the impossible, ambiguous and untenable identity of each. Consequently, the pregnant body is often constructed as abject. It is a body that is considered dangerous and to be feared. It is also considered to be a body that needs to be controlled.

There are many ways in which attempts are made to control pregnant bodies. First, the fetus is often treated as though it were a public concern. Pregnant women’s rights to bodily autonomy are considered to be questionable. Second, this leads to pregnant women’s stomachs being subject to public gaze and often touch. Their ‘bodily space’ is frequently invaded. Third, pregnant women tend to be constructed by lovers, husbands, partners, friends, family, strangers, health workers and themselves as being in a ‘condition’ in which they must take special care in order to protect the well-being of the fetus. Fourth, pregnant women are subject to dietary regimes in an attempt to control what enters their bodies.

This reminded me of a recent public lactation "incident", which you can read about here:
Dozens of nursing mothers crowded into a downtown Vancouver H&M clothing store over the lunch hour on Thursday to protest the way the chain treated a breastfeeding mother last weekend.

Manuela Valle said three store employees told her last week that H&M policy did not allow her to nurse her eight-week-old baby in the store because it might offend other customers, and ushered her to a backroom.

Breastfeeding advocates reacted by organizing a protest — dubbed a "nurse-in" — at the store on Thursday.

The comments are interesting. Aside from mostly supportive comments, there are the usual reactions to "women's issues", from disagreement ("I think this is getting to the point of ridiculous. Of course breastfeeding is natural. But I don't think its too much to ask to cover up while doing it.") to dismissive ("Lighten up folks, lighten up! There are so many far more serious issues that all of us, including nursing moms, need to focus our time and energies on that this issue pales by comparison.")


Romantic Heretic said...

Interesting. I think there's a lot of truth here. I'll need to think about it some more.

The point about control resonates deeply for me. We here in the West are the worst control freaks. We tend to ignore things we can't control.

Chief among these is death. Death is the one thing completely beyond our control. So we want no reminder of it.

The uniforms that modern management wear, in my opinion, are dominant's uniforms. Much like the uniforms doms in the BDSM scene wear it emphasizes their dominant position. Although more often it's camouflage or a replacement for a real dominant attitude. ;)

Anonymous said...

Great points! I think I'm going to come back to this blog. In regards to H&M I'm thinking of boycotting them for a while. How would those breast feeding oppenants of liked it if their mothers didn't nurse them?