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Legends & Fear

As we all know, I’m a fairy-tale expert. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like other forms of folk narrative! In particular, I’ve always loved legends. There’s something about them that captures my imagination, though I’ve not done much original research on them.

In the classroom, however, I bring in legends at every opportunity. I’ve done enough coursework in them that I feel pretty competent explaining what they are as a genre and how we can productively study them (note the “productively” part: spending time debating whether they actually happened is a waste of time, in my opinion, because as students of culture, we’re far more interested in why these stories are compelling enough to tell and retell).

Legends are almost always about fear. Different folklore genres tend to cluster around certain themes and messages, and as I’ve written in regard to sex positivity and folklore, when legends deal with sex, it’s almost always in a negative light.

Having sex outside marriage? You should be afraid that something bad will happen to you. Having sex with a same-sex partner? Likeliness of bad things increases. Performing non-procreative acts like oral sex or anal sex? Be very afraid. Having an affair? More bad news. Masturbating? Uh oh!

The list of sex acts that get demonized in legends goes on and on, and they all link back to one thing: fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the abnormal. Fear of social stigma. Fear of disease. Fear of having your privacy violated. Fear of being mocked.

I love that by studying these stories, we can tap into very basic human fears that take particular expression in this day and age. However, I don’t love the fears that are being normalized here. I want to see sexual diversity being celebrated, not stigmatized. I want to see sexual exploration being done safely and consensually regardless of whether it happens inside or outside marriage, heterosexuality, and vanilla life.

Hopefully by studying the fears transmitted in legends, we can counter these broadly conservative social and sexual messages with other messages and narratives that are more broadly inclusive. In other words, let’s learn from these narratives, and learn from these fears, but not let them define our reality.

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An early illustration of the Grimms’ “The Frog Prince.” Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

If you’re a fairy-tale scholar/nerd like me, you’re probably making your way through (or at least aware of) Jack Zipes’s new translation of the first edition of the Grimms’ fairy tales. While reading the introduction, which details how the brothers collected and edited their tales, I came across a fascinating quote about how they view censorship, which I wanted to share here.

To briefly give some context, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were scholars whose interest in German folklore began as a combination of art and science: they were gathering tales to help some friends in the literary scene achieve enough material to publish, and they were also interested in the historical evolution of language and genre. Documenting the oral traditions (Naturpoesie) of the German people was also a political means to an end, as Germany was not yet united and was suffering under Napoleon’s wartime rule.

So in 1812 and 1815, the Grimms published volumes 1 and 2 of their fairy tales… which also contained a bunch of scholarly annotations. This first edition wasn’t that well received by the public; many readers thought the stories were too crude, violent, and sexually explicit. The annotations didn’t really resonate with the general public, either, and the topic seemed trivial to some. For the next 40 years, the Grimms continually revised their tales, putting out new editions, until the final (and for many, definitive) edition of 1857 was published. The stories from that edition are probably the ones you’ve read, unless you also read German.

Are the tales meant for kids? Yes and no. As scholars have extrapolated from their writings, the Grimms were writing for fellow scholars, but also believing that young and old readers alike could derive both wisdom and entertainment from these tales. They vehemently rejected the idea that the tales should be withheld from children on the basis of their being unsuitable for them, and here’s where things get interesting.

The Grimms weigh in on the subject:

“In publishing our collection we wanted to do more than just perform a service for the history of Poesie. We intended at the same time to enable Poesie itself, which is alive in the collection, to have an effect: it was to give pleasure to anyone who could take pleasure in it, and therefore, our collection was also to become an intrinsic educational primer. Some people have complained about this latter intention, and asserted that there are things here and there [in our collection] that cause embarrassment and are unsuitable for children or offensive (such as the reference to certain incidents and conditions, and they also think children should not hear about the devil or anything evil). Accordingly, parents should not offer the collection to children. In individual cases this concern may be correct, and thus one can easily choose which tales are to be read. On the whole it is certainly not necessary. Nothing can better defend us than nature itself, which has let certain flowers and leaves grow in a particular color and shape. People who do not find them beneficial, suitable for their special needs, which cannot be known, can easily walk right by them. But they cannot demand that the flowers and leaves be colored and cut in another way.” (Zipes xxix-xxx)

Although the Grimms did increasingly edit their tales for certain kinds of content (changing wicked mothers into wicked stepmothers; removing mentions of pregnancy; removing overt incest), this assertion is still a fascinating one. Why, indeed, should artists and content creators/curators be beholden to the complaints of a few? If people can be expected to overlook things that don’t serve them in nature, why can’t they do so with art?

I very much think that the Grimms are correct, and that people can and should be responsible for their own content intake much of the time. Concerned parents can try to monitor what their children are reading, or better yet, raise the kids with values congruent with their own, so that if kids encounter “objectionable” material then hopefully they won’t be too vulnerable to it.

It also amazes me that almost the exact same argument for censorship we hear so often today – “but think of the children!” – was being made TWO centuries ago. It’s clearly a powerful rhetoric that resonates with a lot of people, though I think it’s overused and misused in many cases.

The “art is like nature; take it or leave it” argument might be flawed, though. Goodness knows that some folks take what is natural – say, sex and sexuality – and try to obscure it, making it seem like it doesn’t exist. But it seems to me that the Grimms have, two centuries ago, articulated a very important anti-censorship argument: that we inhabit a world that is not always to our liking, and we must make our peace with this fact.

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This won’t be as citation-laden as many of my posts on academia are, so please feel free to ask if you’d like references. Mostly, though, I encourage you to sit back and enjoy the rant.

As a scholar, I engage in a lot of qualitative research, ranging from fairy-tale interpretation to studying the numinous in dance. I love me some qualitative research – but even then, I’d like to note that there are methods, theories, and disciplinary frameworks to keep us from wandering off too far into hyper-subjective la-la land.

I really loathe bad scholarship (view one of my rants on the topic here), but obviously that’s a somewhat subjective judgment. I get annoyed when people make erroneous assumptions, such as that everyone is equally knowledgeable about folklore (you’re not), or that all folklorists are good for is writing children’s books (we’re not). Ungrounded assumptions have no place in the academy, in my view.

So, with those two admissions up front, I have to say: I really hate it when stuff that is not empirically, well, anything gets discussed as though it’s valid in an academic context. I am all for personal exploration when it comes to spirituality, religion, and Jungian-type analysis. Hell, I’ve published on Tarot (though I’ll note that it was a historical overview of Tarot iconography in light of feminist spirituality, so, something that can be examined in terms of evidence and theories). I’m not saying that all inward-looking work is useless, or irrelevant, just that I dislike seeing it in a university setting.

Two examples come to mind: the works of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and the practice of Tantra. My folklore mentor, Alan Dundes, had a lot to say about Jung Campbell, but what I’ll point out here is what Jung himself has said: that archetypes are essentially unknowable. I’m sorry, but if something is unknowable, then it cannot be empirically investigated and thus is has no place in academic discourse. Use it all you want in your personal life, but keep it out of my peer-reviewed journals and accredited schools, please. In terms of Tantra, I just. don’t. get. it. I’m not sure if I’m more dumbfounded that anyone believes that there could be an unbroken chain of cultural transmission that’s thousands of years old, or that it’s being promoted within academic settings as something that can be empirically conceptualized and used. I’m all for reaping the benefits of mindfulness, deep breathing, and connecting with people via eye gazing… but why not just call it those things?

Again, I like qualitative research. I think it adds a necessary complement to quantitative research. I love working in the humanities as well as the social sciences. I think art is incredibly important. I recognize that there are subjective components in the classroom, and those are often incredibly important to the student’s overall learning experience. But if there’s not some empirical aspect to what you’re doing, if there’s not some way to replicate the study or teach it or even to use language accurately to define or discuss it, then I don’t want it in official academic discourse.

It’s entirely possible that I’m missing something here, or overlooking some important function that “woo” stuff serves as a complement to the rest of what happens in the university. But mostly I’m annoyed that this stuff gets airtime when it doesn’t really stand up to the same rigor that the rest of what we’re supposed to engage with does.

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Me performing with my students and dance troupemates at a 3rd Friday Drum Circle at Playground Productions (Indianapolis).

Me performing with my students and dance troupemates at a 3rd Friday Drum Circle at Playground Productions (Indianapolis).

One of the things I’m learning about teaching dance is that while it’s usually full of delightful challenges, there are rougher times too – such as the time when a dance student moves on to another location.

While in the middle of one of these situations, I started reflecting on what I’d like to tell my past and present dance students. I decided to write an open letter to them and post it here, in part so that I don’t have to reiterate it each time this happens, and in part so I don’t tear up by having to say these things in person.

***

To my dance students –

In the time you’ve studied with me, whether it’s been a handful of classes or a couple of years, I’ve hopefully shown you some of the wonders of American Tribal Style® Belly Dance. You’ve studied hard and learned a number of dance movements as well as the improvisational structure of the dance (which reflect one another like fractals do). You’ve experienced how practicing the moves is a fun activity in and of itself, but the movement vocabulary is also an end to a means: the ability to collectively improvise with your dance partners.

Collective improvisation is a unique experience, and one that I hope you’ve gotten to enjoy. It’s one way to get into a flow state, thereby becoming absorbed in the moment rather than being stuck in your head. Most ATS dancers I know describe the flow state in desirable terms, as something that happens when everything clicks and you’re able to let go of conscious thought and just be in the moment. (In case you’re curious about these flow experiences in belly dancing, I explore them in an academic article on the numinous in belly dance, which also includes experiences like trance dancing and spiritual dancing.)

I hope that when you go on to another dance studio, teacher, or style, you’ve absorbed some of the lessons I try to convey in my teaching, such as practicing self-care at all times, and being compassionate with yourself when trying to learn a difficult concept. I also try to teach that simplicity is often best, that form and intention can go a long way in dance.

As you should know from studying the history of ATS, there’s a lot of variation in our dance. A LOT. It’s just like a language that naturally develops dialects over time and space. I hope that when you go on to study ATS under another teacher, you are respectful and willing to learn that troupe’s flavor. There might be more dialect than you’re used to. They angle their Triangle Step differently, or include one more or less floreo in their Strong Arm. Be graceful and roll with it. You might like some ways that I taught things better, or you might prefer your new instructor’s way of doing things. Be okay with these things. While you’re still a student, you’ll accept that teacher’s stylistic decisions and guidance, and if you decide to go on to become a teacher yourself, you can make those calls yourself.

But in my experience, dancing ATS is less about the details and more about the connection with your fellow dancers. It’s about how the movement vocabulary lets you communicate using hand signals and your gaze, and in doing so, create a novel dance experience for all participants.

To wrap this up, I’m honored that you trusted me enough to let me be your teacher. I know that it can be difficult to trust a dance teacher when our culture’s so wrapped up in body image and confidence issues. Indeed, I think ATS is subversive in large part because it lets us access a flow state and thus not be concerned in the moment about how we look, but rather how we feel. And if I’ve helped you achieve that transcendence at all, then I’m thrilled to have had a part in it.

(also, it occurs to me that if you haven’t seen ATS before, watching a performance might help all this make more sense! so feel free to check out this video of me performing with my students and troupemates, many of whom first started to study this dance form under me…and again, this was all improvised!)

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Mini hoop portrait by Hannah Root.

Mini hoop portrait by Hannah Root.

I know I write a lot about belly dancing, but I also do hoopdance. Yes, that means dancing with a hula hoop, though we don’t really call tend to them that in the hoop community (since modern hoopdance has nothing to do with hula dancing).

Mostly I dance with a “normal” sized hoop, which is one that you can feasibly spin around your body and keep there using momentum and your body’s natural movements. Here’s a representative example of one of my hoopdances, in case you’ve not seen much hoopdance before.

Hooping is fun, and great exercise, and a welcome break from my oh-so-serious belly dance career. I find it very expressive, and challenging too. But since I can’t ever seem to sit still and focus on just one thing, I’ve decided to also start working with mini hoops. In the picture to the right, you can see me posing with one mini hoop, which is just a smaller hoop that would be tough to keep up on your body. Instead, we tend to use mini hoops more on our hands and maybe arms, spinning them and making shapes and patterns in the air.

I’ll readily confess that I’m pretty terrible with mini hoops. When I took my first ever minis/doubles workshop with local hoop guru Lynn Spencer-Nelson, I gave myself a bloody lip. Yep. It took me a few years to decide to pick up minis again, and I’ve definitely knocked myself in the head a few times while practicing.

The nice thing, though, is that hooping with minis is bringing me out of my comfort zone, in much the same way that yoga does. Maybe I’ll perform with them someday, and maybe not, but for now, it’s nice to have a new prop to play around with and just explore creative movement with.

The other thing I’ve been doing to challenge myself with hoopdance is attempting weekly challenges that one of my hoop mentors (Caroleeena) generates for the online hooping community. Each week we focus on a different aspect of the dance, such as using our hands more, or our hips, or, as in this video I just made, using traveling steps and footwork. It turns out that these weekly challenges are making me think about hoopdance in ways that I hadn’t before, and additionally, watching myself on film at least once a week – while it used to be a cringe-worthy pursuit – is helping me spot areas I can work on improving.

So between picking up mini hoops to play (a.k.a. flail) with, and between doing weekly challenges on incorporating different facets of dance into my hooping, I’m feeling pretty creatively stimulated right now. This has been great fun, and it also makes me wonder if I can apply these two ideas (1. try a new prop/technique/whatever that feels TOTALLY unattainable and 2. do weekly challenges) to writing, teaching, belly dancing, cooking, and other areas of my life. If nothing else, it’ll keep things fresh, right?

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The Librarian by Guiseppe Arcimboldo. For those of us who feel like reading and writing makes us who we are.

I’ve blogged about taking my writing in different directions, and now I’m beginning to plan to make it happen. It’s a little scary, to say the least.

During an anxiety-driven rant on Facebook about goals and how my relationship to them is changing, I managed to solicit a great deal of solid advice on relating to goals from my friends. With their permission, I thought I’d share these quotes, in a crowd-sourced type of inspirational blog post.

While I was angsting about feeling like I need to set goals – which is quite likely a holdover from my academic background – my friend Tracie had this to offer: “Setting goals is overrated! You don’t need to know the final destination, you just need to know the next step.”

In another vote for not letting goals take over your life, Linda wrote: “I agree with ‘What’s the point of goals?’ My newer motto is ‘Be here, NOW!’ Eckhart Tolle knew what he was talking about in his book, The Power of Now! The universe has my back & I am an open channel for all the wonderful things in store for me (that I don’t even know about yet!). Feeling philosophical today.”

My friend and sex educator colleague Kate McCombs shared: “I am enjoying detaching from intense ‘goal setting.’ Recently, I’ve been deeply enjoying The Desire Map, which is a book about identifying your core desired feelings and using those as your anchors instead of external goals. I’m actually teaching workshops on it next year. Let me know if you ever want to chat about it.”

Mental health professional and friend Kathy Slaughter offered: “Life is happening all around you right now. The short-term may just need all you have to give, which could be clouding your long-term view. Also, one of my favorite quotes when I can’t see where I’m heading: ‘There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.’ Sometimes success comes because we just keep walking, taking the next thing as it comes.”

My friend Michael agreed with Kathy: “What Slaughter said. And being too hard on yourself can be just as counter-productive in the long run. Life changes. We have to adapt. I’ve had this happen a couple times in big ways. It’s ok if we don’t find ourselves coming out of a change & automatically know what to do. Sometimes I think part of life is figuring that out as we go some, and giving ourselves the space & the understanding to do so…But I would hardly say you have no goals or direction, in the short time I’ve known ye.”

Part of the reason I’m so obsessive over goals is that I find it helps me manage my stress. Coming from a different perspective, my friend Carrie contributed: “I do fine with goals, but I find *picking* goals very stressful. It’s why I like long term projects more than short ones; all the intermediate steps are goals but I’ve picked them already, so when one is complete I can just go to the next, no debate required.”

The weird thing is that I’m finding *not* having goals to be stressful… almost as though there’s something missing in my life now that I’m shifting careers and life goals and all that stuff. I long for having something concrete to devote myself to (though look how well it turned out last time, right? for more on my change of heart about academia, see my post series over at Conditionally Accepted).

But whenever I start to feel like I’m incomplete or not good enough on my own, because I’m not setting or meeting enough goals, I get reminders that I’m a whole person, a worthwhile person, merely by virtue of existing. As my dance colleague Alima wrote: “I actually just had a conversation yesterday about this. To be mindful of the opportunity and desire for growth is great but there is a Buddhist proverb that might give you some comfort ‘to desire always leaves you wanting, detached from the now. To be fully present in this moment, not desiring but simply being, gives you complete freedom and happiness’…you’re perfect as you are!”

What I’ve learned is that I don’t need to have everything figured out in order to move forward. Getting started on something new may not feel like moving forward, and may thus cause cognitive dissonance to the side of me that’s accustomed to being super goal-oriented… but that’s okay. The more I learn to embrace the uncertainty of life, the better I’ll be able to cope with the inevitable changes and upsets that’ll occur. And, if nothing else, I have wonderful friends to help me through these transitional times.

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The famous non-consensual kiss from “Sleeping Beauty.” Image by Henry Meynell Rheam (in public domain).

I spent a good chunk of this year’s annual meeting of the American Folklore Society live-tweeting the conference. And, given that I’m now working as a sex educator, a lot of what I tweeted about was sexuality and gender.

When I tweeted disparagingly about the lack of sex positivity at the conference, a colleague responded by asking what exactly I mean by sex positivity. It’s not, unfortunately, something that everyone in our society learns about, nor is it on the curriculum for most folklore studies programs. So I wrote this blog post about what sex positivity means to me, and decided to do a follow-up post relating it back to folklore.

In folklore studies, and especially my specialty of narrative studies, we spend a lot of time talking about genres. A genre is a basic category of folklore, a type of expressive culture that we group by similarities in content, structure, transmission/performance, and function. So my first thought when it comes to relating sex positivity to folklore is to write about which genres engage with sex positivity (or not).

Based on the paper I gave this year, examining gender and sexuality in the TV show Lost Girl, I’ve been thinking about sex positivity in two specific narrative folklore genres: legend and fairy tale. We define legends as belief tales that are told as though they actually happened, which is why you so see so many urban legends debunked on Snopes.com: they tie into people’s beliefs about reality, so strongly that they’ll be transmitted regardless of their truth value.

For a representative sampling of legends about sex, check out these summaries of texts from just one legend book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker by folklorist Jan Brunvand: innocent make-out sessions lead to death in “The Boyfriend’s Death,” infidelity is punished in “The Solid Cement Cadillac,” and various nude surprises occur because people are generally acting pervy. Then there are legends regarding the transmission of HIV/AIDS, organ theft after a one-night stand, people getting stuck together during sex, and people losing objects internally during masturbation.

Based on this sample, I think it’s safe to say that most legends are NOT sex positive. They depict sex acts as having dangerous consequences. Even if a character’s intention was not malevolent, the effects are harmful. This probably relates to how legends function in society: they often contain socially conservative messages meant to police communal behavior.

With fairy tales—which have a bit more distance from reality as they’re fictional, formulaic tales about magic, quests, and transformation—it’s a bit harder to make sweeping proclamations about whether or not they’re sex positive. Most fairy tales end in marriage, after all, which would seem to be an endorsement for sex. However, fairy tales give us a fairly narrow vision of acceptable forms of sexuality: most fairy-tale pairings are heterosexual, monogamous, and transactional.

I’ve been researching promiscuity and non-monogamy in fairy tales, and based on that, I’ve concluded that fairy tales (like legends) convey rather restrictive attitudes about sexuality. Promiscuous female characters are punished, while there’s rarely any comment on the need for a man to be a virgin before marriage (yes, there are tales about magical virginity tests before marriage—only for the female characters, of course). It’s a little disturbing to realize that fairy tales contain many similar elements to contemporary abstinence-only programming: an emphasis on virginity before marriage, a need to police sexual behavior especially in women, and a correlation between chastity and virtue. (want citations? contact me for a copy of my paper)

In contrast to legends, though, fairy tales do show sexuality as being potentially generative and therefore positive in that light at least. Sex in fairy tales leads to children, and fairy-tale children are generally valued. You never know when having a kid might lead to breaking a curse down the road, after all. So while it’s still a mixed bag, I have to conclude based on this brief survey that fairy tales are a bit more sex positive than legends.

I can’t think of any other folklorists using sex positivity as a metric to evaluate the messages within various folklore genres. This could be an intriguing and useful line of inquiry, so if you have suggestions for folklore genres to compare and contrast in regard to sex positivity, feel free to leave a comment and get in on this discussion!

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Backbends: another reason belly dance and yoga go together. Photo by Paul Patton, from Bloomington Belly Dances 2013.

Backbends: another reason belly dance and yoga go together. Photo by Paul Patton, from Bloomington Belly Dances 2013.

I’m in the middle of a 30-Day Challenge at my local hot yoga studio (the goal is to do 30 consecutive days of yoga), and it’s not only thoroughly challenging me, but also inspiring me to reflect on the different things I get out of yoga and dance.

With dance – specifically, American Tribal Style® Belly Dance – I’m kinda at the top of the local food chain. I’m a certified teacher of the style, and I run a troupe, and we even get paid to perform (sometimes). I’m deeply honored that my students trust me to be their teacher. I love this dance form, and I love finding ways to challenge myself, up my game, and improve my technique.

But for the most part, for me to view dance with new eyes, I need to play in another sandbox (or dance style). I’ve been doing some of that too recently, which has been more rewarding than I can really put into words right now. Still, the feeling persists: when it comes to dance, I’m a pretty okay dancer. The things that challenge me are things I’ll eventually get a handle on. For the most part, I’m competent at it.

With yoga, though, I feel like a complete beginner every time I unroll my mat. It’s very humbling, and I love it. I fall all the time in balancing poses. I can’t do a handstand or even a headstand yet. My warrior lunges are frequently shaky and need correction.

I am grateful to have yoga in my life right now, in part because it feeds into my desire for a healthy body, in part because it helps calm my jittery anxious mind, and also in part because it serves as a contrast to my “yep, I got this” attitude as a professional dancer. When I do yoga, I’m reminded of how much I have yet to learn… and the fact that it’s okay to be a perpetual beginner. I think it’s good for me to have a regular practice that involves both mind and body that is explicitly NOT about achievement, goals, and status. Because while I love building the local tribal belly dance community (which relies on me promoting myself as a competent teacher/performer hence all that achievement/goal/status stuff coming into play), I like having other modes of exploring what my body can do.

I doubt it’s just me, either. I would hazard a guess that a lot of people could benefit from having parts of their lives where they funnel their achievements, and other parts where they aim simply to show up, be present, and enjoy. I know I’ll be both relieved and sad when this 30-Day Challenge is over, but hopefully I’ll carry forward this experience of enjoying humility.

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For a couple weeks now, I’ve been moaning about writer’s block. I need to write tons of things, you see, from blog posts for this site to blog posts for my new sex education site, not to mention writing assignments and lesson plans for the class I’m teaching, and conference papers and proposals. Oh, and I want to write a book or two.

The words just aren’t coming, though. I make time to write and then stare blankly at the screen, or that time evaporates into other things. I gave myself a little time to stew and focus on other things, and then I began thinking about the problem. What I realized is that I’ve been writing this whole time, I just haven’t been writing the things I’ve supposed to write.

The past few weeks – hell, months – have been pretty stressful for me. I’m sure the stress alone has zapped some of my writing energy, but then I figured out that I’ve been writing about my emotions more than usual. I’ve been reaching out to friends a ton, in emails and Facebook messages. I’ve been journaling about my feelings and experiences, and making to-do lists galore.

It’s a small thing to realize, but I find it incredibly helpful to figure out that I haven’t entirely lost my writing mojo, I’ve just been redirecting it therapeutically. Hopefully as I continue to process this stuff, I’ll get back to writing more frequently, and maybe even writing the things I’m supposed to write… on time, gasp!

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This semester, I’m teaching a class I designed on Body Art. It’s cross-listed in anthropology and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies, but it’s really a folklore class (surprise, surprise). One concept that my students have really latched onto is the idea of audience, and the first audience for any expressive display being the self.

Photo by Curtis Claspell.

Me wearing a shawl from Kamakhya Temple in Assam, India. Photo by Curtis Claspell.

The main text we’re reading is The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India, by Pravina Shukla, a professor of folklore at Indiana University (who was also one of my mentors while I was there for my PhD). I assigned this book for a few reasons: it’s well-written and is on the whole a beautiful book, it lays out the study of body art as a genre of material culture quite clearly, and it foregrounds the study of both daily dress and special occasion wear.

A lot of students came to my body art class expecting to spend the whole semester talking about tattoos and other permanent or extreme body mods. We will certainly discuss those things, but I’m also trying to give my students vocabulary and concepts for studying the daily clothing choices that surround them. I’m assigning a handful of fieldwork projects, for example, that could include looking at tattoos and piercings, but will mostly be about observing the clothing of people around them. I like to think that I’m giving them tools to critically interpret the visual culture of clothing, in order to perhaps be a bit more savvy about brands and advertising and the commodification of bodies.

Body image is one topic that I’m looking forward to discussing with my students. We’ve talked about the idea that when you get dressed in the morning, you’re the first audience for your stylistic choices. Your entire life history, your sense of body image, your self-esteem, your struggles with your weight… those all are foregrounded when you decide what to wear when dressing to go out. This is one area where my class design dovetails nicely with gender studies: women and men get radically different social messages about what’s appropriate to wear, and what’s considered “normal” for outfits and attractiveness.

One thing I’ve noticed when thinking about audience and body image in conjunction is that we are usually harder on ourselves than others are. If I’m trying on an outfit, I’ll probably notice imperfections and inconsistencies that no one else would see. I’m seeing the accumulation of my years of body image anxiety that no one else sees when they look at me, since I manage to appear outwardly confident (sometimes intimidatingly so). If I am my first audience, I am truly a harsh critic… and while I haven’t done the research on this yet (though now I really want to!) I’m guessing this trend is true of many other folks. It’s probably gendered, too, from what I gather based on informal conversations with friends and fellow dancers.

So if the self is the first audience, I wonder: do we owe it to ourselves to be kinder audiences? Do we seek fault with ourselves so that we can beat others to it? When do we allow ourselves to see the most beauty in our self image? Are there links between allowing ourselves creative freedom in body adornment (c’mon, who else still plays dress-up?) and feeling more satisfied with our body image?

The semester’s only just begun, so I hope to dig a bit deeper into these topics with my students. But I also hope to start some dialogue with the wider world, because we all could stand to be a little kinder to ourselves, and to see ourselves as beautiful.

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