Some poems about apples

Years and years ago, I started a writers’ group that met once every three weeks. We’d read and comment on a poem or a piece of short fiction written by one of us, which more often than not led to a piercingly intimate dissection of the bad breaks or bad lovers which inspired us. Then we’d drink several bottles of wine and play one or two silly writing games, such as “Dirty Napkin,” which yielded a great deal of wine-soaked laughter. These are very fond memories.

I still wrote the occasional poem in those days, when I was reading more poetry and the habit of it came more easily. Among them was a suite of poems inspired by René Magritte paintings–and also by a crushing break-up, which supplied the melancholy tone. I always thought about sending these to one of the food magazines I’ve written for, but since I don’t write poetry regularly it didn’t make sense to try to publish them. But then I put together a Magritte-inspired Food Music Playlist, and I thought, Why not? This is my blog, I can do what I want. Public and yet not published, here lies the fruit of a wounded younger version of myself.

apple1 apple2 apple3 apple4 apple5

The Winged Histories

6 Things I love about Sofia Samatar’s Olondria novels

I read A Stranger in Olondria last year and observed how different it felt to read it compared to other books I enjoy. Typically, books that become my favorites are those that are impossible to put down; quick, intense reads. A Stranger in Olondria is so dense with description and mythology that I was compelled to read it slowly, but found that it was absolutely worth taking the time so that the story can unfold slowly in layers and layers of detail.

This year I read Sofia Samatar’s second novel, The Winged Histories, and I cannot wait to read it again. In fact I did re-read the first few chapters almost immediately after finishing the book, just so I could linger in that world again. I’m trying to read through the stack of new-to-me novels I picked up from a used book sale, but what I’d really like to do is start from the beginning of A Stranger in Olondria and go through it all again.

Why do I love these books?

  1. They are rich with sensory detail. Every scene is crowded with information about how things look, feel, sound, and smell.
    Young Adult Historical Vault recently revisited a book I loved as a child, Quest for a Maid, which depicts medieval Scotland in gloriously vivid detail: the main character comes from an enormous merchant household that works hard and plays hard, and her narrative is packed with candies, ribbons, colorful markets, winter sports, instructions for making dresses and keeping house, and magic. I still think of this book many years later in the oddest of places, such as when I encounter marzipan, walk into a pop-up market, or sew.
    I have a feeling Sofia Samatar’s novels will be like this for me too, with its vivid peppercorn trees, the riot of noise and stimulus of the markets, the elaborate written rituals of royalty. Now that I work in a library, I look at old volumes with ornate covers and remember the first time Jevick in Stranger sees a book. When I sit down to write, despite my preference for typing I still think of the handwritten journals and letters, the writing implements, the rituals of writing space both physical and mental employed by the characters who can write.
  2. The books take place in a culturally and historically rich world. I went to all the Middle Earth movies, no matter how terrible. I followed Harry Potter up through the seventh book; I’m even going to Harry Potter Quizzo this weekend. I’ve played every game in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age universes, and in between watching Marvel Comics television and film releases I try to catch up on the original characters and their plotlines. What all of these cultural artifacts have in common is that they take place in worlds that have history, mythology, culture with layers of conflict and interrelationships, sometimes geeky ornamentation such as invented languages or social rules. These are cherished by fans in part because you can dwell in their worlds by learning their rules, languages, lore.
    A Stranger in Olondria provides that the sweeping history, the clash of cultures, the languages and lore in one novel. That is nothing short of remarkable. The Winged Histories expands on that world in a very satisfying way. In both novels, the reader becomes acquainted with the legends and history of Olondria because the characters are learning it (as with Stranger‘s Jevick, who is an immigrant) or loving and finding comfort in its tales (as is frequently the case in Histories). This is a primary factor in my wish to re-read: no doubt there are nuances and details to the lore I missed the first time.
  3. This imagined world is not just another version of the one you already know. By way of explanation, another story: I’ve watched maybe two episodes of Game of Thrones. The first episode I saw was the first episode of Season 2, where the narrative has to check in with each of the seven kingdoms. Although I was not familiar with the plot or characters, it wasn’t hard to follow: the tyrant king, here; the rebel king, there; the sorceress, over here. It is a story built on tropes which felt very familiar to me, which is one reason why I didn’t feel the need to continue. From what I hear, the show introduces novelty and surprise by crossing lines we don’t expect it to cross moreso than by introducing fresh perspectives on these old tropes.
    Olondria is not Medieval England Redux. The center of its empire is warm and lush, where spices and pomegranates grow, but the empire reaches into tropical islands, deserted plains, and snowy highlands. Olondria has tenuously united a diverse array of peoples with a variety of cultures who have a variety of appearances beyond the usual formula of “white people north, brown people south.” The Olondrian Empire doesn’t have a one-to-one parallel with real history: it draws a little from the Roman Empire, a little from the British Empire, most likely from empires whose history is less well known to me. Olondria is pre-industrial but not archaic; its social structures are sophisticated and complex. Its fashionable aristocracy would be recognizable in any time or place, but the trends they pick up and drop feel new and surprising.
  4. The imagined world engages oppression meaningfully, not reflexively. For one example: The Winged Histories explores historical fantasy sexism in a nuanced, meaningful way. It’s not all rape and slavery, as the medieval fantasies of certain male writers tend to be. Nor does it depend on exceptionalism, with just one female rulebreaker to throw the plight of women into contrast. The four female narrators each experience oppression differently based on their respective cultural and family backgrounds. When they rebel, they feel a little lonely, but not completely alone because they can refer to historical precedents and a few living examples: an ambitious queen, a swordmaiden, a sister.
    Likewise, both novels depict the colonial history of the Olondrian Empire as complex. The Empire itself is far from uniform and united; like any real-life empire, it is only tenuously held together by a preferred religion and an exhausted military. The cultures who are assimilated into the Empire have their own complicated history of triumphs and failures. The result is a thoughtful reflection on the exchange of power.
  5. Both books passionately love books. For the love of print, buy a hard copy of each. I did not, even though I knew better for The Winged Histories, but I had already started reading the free sample on my Kindle and I couldn’t wait to continue. But this is a book that benefits from being held in the hands: characters take great risks for books, plunging their hands into fires to rescue burning pages, or carrying precious volumes in their shirts even onto the battlefield. Besides, it would have been helpful to flip between the swordmaiden’s narrative and the map of Olondria to track her travels. I didn’t even know there was a glossary in the back of The Winged Histories; I just marched doggedly through, inferring words like teiva and milim from context. Which was fine, but you don’t have to.
  6. They are magical. The magical and supernatural elements build slowly. Everyone in Olondia has heard of magic, of course; many of them practice living religions and are prepared to accept miracles, spirit guides, and visions, even if those events are rare. And everyone knows the legends, of course. But not everyone experiences magic, and when it happens to certain characters, they aren’t always sure how to explain what’s happening, or why it’s happening to them. Magic enters the story through a process of discovery, making it all the more wonderful and miraculous for the reader.

I have definitely talked myself into re-reading; I may even come up with an entirely different set of Things I Love.

Job hunting real talk: second edition

At the beginning of 2015, I posted a roundup of all the job applications I sent out and the responses I received. Several friends responded in person that it was helpful for them to see my ratios of applications to interviews to offers. As I noted in my previous post, when you’re in the midst of jobseeking it can feel like you’re sending out a million applications with zero returns, and it can be reassuring to see (a) that is an exaggeration and (b) you are not the only one having that experience.

The job I landed after that particular search did not work out in the long term. It would not have been long-term anyway, since it was a part-time position. In addition to that, it was a deeply troubled workplace, and every day I spent in the office was tense and uncomfortable. I worried for awhile that the problem was me, that I simply hated work. Now that I am safely installed at a job that I really enjoy, I know that isn’t true.

I was so unhappy at that job that I put in my notice before I had something else lined up–always a risky move, and there were two uncomfortable months of unemployment that summer. Another complicating factor is that I was still trying to finish at least a draft of my dissertation by the year’s end, and I already knew that I couldn’t balance that with a full-time job. So, this job seeking report is divided into two parts to address two very different job searches over the last year.

Phase 1: Seeking part-time employment

From May to July 2015, I looked primarily for part-time or freelance employment. My goals were to secure a baseline level of income and a schedule that would permit long uninterrupted stretches of time for dissertation writing. I cast my net wide–retail, customer service, clerical–but I was hoping for something that offer some continuity with my previous work experience, so I also applied to jobs in editing, copywriting, etc. Some were remote, but many were right here in Philadelphia. It’s not uncommon for nonprofit organizations to offer part-time positions because they can’t afford a full-time staffperson; I was careful to avoid “part-time” jobs that specified 30 hours or more a week.

During this period, I sent approximately 24 applications.
I was invited to 7 interviews, 1 of which was by phone.
I declined 1 interview (job was grossly misrepresented in its listing) and withdrew my application after 1 interview (pay too low).
I had no second interviews.
I was offered 3 jobs, all of which I accepted.

The three jobs I accepted did not really follow the conventional application-interview-offer arc. First, I simply asked a local grocer if I could clerk in their soon-to-be-opened branch. No interview, no application; I had been a long-time customer in my more financially stable days, and I started as soon as the new branch was opened. Meanwhile,  I responded to a Craigslist ad to clerk at a store that sold local wine. I was familiar with the shop and wrote a poetic email about doing a tasting there with my family; the manager replied almost immediately to set up an interview. He also hired me during the interview, which is not common, and which for some jobs would be a red flag–in fact it made me a little nervous–but this decision made sense when I got to know the job and the manager a little better. Between the grocery store and the wine store, I was working 40 hours a week, but this still helped meet my goals: both shops were small; I was often alone; I was permitted to work on my computer between customers.

The third job was unusual. I applied to be a tour guide at a local historical site even before I left my unhappy marketing position. I did not get an interview, and I wrote back to ask why. There is a non-obnoxious way to do this, but that is not the way I did it. For some reason, though, the hiring manager responded by inviting me for an interview. I did not get the job. Some months later, though, she reached out to offer me a slightly different job: historical tours, but at night. I took it. This job involved a night shift five nights a week during one month, which mostly precluded getting any writing done that month, but it was a cool experience and I was grateful for the money.

Sometimes, fellow academics who are new to non-academic jobseeking ask whether their educational background will be an impediment to their job search. Overall I would say not, although of course this varies by employer; one firm responded to my application with “Your beautiful resume certainly shows your creativity and attention to detail, but we are concerned with your happiness in an admin position.” I also had a few interviews for part-time jobs that would have better suited my academic and professional interests: audience engagement manager at a local art center, advertising coordinator for a sculpture magazine, program assistant at a university writing center. I do not know (since we usually never get to know) why I wasn’t offered those jobs, but if anything it’s likely that the timeline of my education was a factor. Employers don’t expect people to stay in part-time jobs forever, but few want to hire and train an employee who is going to take off in less than a year.

Aside from that, the lesson here is that higher ed and professional experience don’t make you unfit for jobs like the ones I took; my application-to-interview ratio wasn’t terrible, and many managers are just happy to hire someone who seems competent and knowledgeable. There are certainly challenges to working behind a counter: customers all day long; a high likelihood of poor management; the unnecessary yet involuntary embarrassment when answering the question “What are you up to these days?” But all three experiences offered opportunities to learn and meet people, and I did scrape by financially and complete my dissertation. I can’t say  that I regret that period of underemployment.

Phase 2: Returning to full-time employment

Once I had a complete draft, I began looking for full-time work. From December to June, I applied to jobs that drew directly on my writing and marketing experience as well as a few that were more administrative in nature; my primary goal was to achieve financial stability and start paying off the credit card debt I accrued in my underemployment. In February I reapplied to the historical site as a daytime tour guide, and left the wine and grocery clerk positions. This turned out to be the best possible decision: the historical site offered slightly better pay, excellent co-workers, and a fascinating day-to-day, but I still really needed the flexible schedule it offered to finish dissertation revisions. I left for my current full-time job in July.

During this period, I sent approximately 34 applications.
I was invited to 7 interviews.
I declined 2 of these interviews; one was offered after I accepted my new position, and the other turned out to be a pyramid scheme.
I had 1 second interview.
I was offered 2 jobs–the historical site and my current position a few months later–and I accepted both.

I also interviewed with two staffing companies that claim to place marketing and communications professionals in local jobs. These interviews felt thorough and promising, but I applied to approximately 50 positions between the of two them and got zero interviews, so I can’t really recommend this strategy. I haven’t included this tally with the rest in part because it didn’t take much time–just click and submit through a website once you’ve uploaded a one-size-fits-most application–and because I don’t really know what the deal is with these companies. If this is a scam, the con must be on the the other end, as the process didn’t cost me anything. Maybe they are just badly managed; one staffing company did helpfully reach out just last week to see if I was interested in interviewing for a specific position. I am 3 months into my new job; 7 months since I’ve spoken with anyone from that company. I choose not to inflate my tallies with these outliers.

The lesson here is that it is a little harder to land full-time, salaried, specialized work; the jobs are there, but the applicants are numerous. All the same, patience and perseverance do pay off. My interviews were for positions with a variety of responsibilities: editor for a travel magazine; project coordinator for a med school research program; marketing and communications manager for a couple of different museums. Any of these would have suited; landing one or the other was partly a matter of being in the right place at the right time.



Books by women I re-read and loved in 2015

I spent most of 2015 working on my dissertation, so I didn’t have a ton of extra time for reading new books–but during this process, I re-read a number of books I first encountered years ago. Man, do I ever love the books I am writing about. These novels continue to be my favorites!

The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger. This 1933 novel follows a young couple who are active with a socialist group in the Great Depression. They struggle with their relative privilege in a time of privation, and flail a bit as they search for meaningful work–hey, rather like we do in the present day! The novel is frequently very funny–if you enjoyed skewering the left-leaning male intellectual in The Love Affairs of Nathanial P. then you’ll be amused at the comedic lack of self-awareness the Marxist men display here–but it is also bitterly sad, particularly in light of how modern and unchanged so much of it feels.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. I’ve read this maybe twice before, but I re-read it in one day and cried a little anyway. This novel is about a girl who develops the ability to taste emotions in food. When her mother bakes her a birthday cake, she is overwhelmed by her mother’s sadness and helplessness, and she turns to junk food to disconnect herself from these too-intimate insights into the emotional landscapes around her. As she gets older, she learns to manage it and can sort out the tastes of the tomato farmers and herb growers in a marinara sauce. It’s a whimsical premise taken quite seriously, and the result is a commentary not only on how we eat but how interconnected our lives are, how much we need those connections, but how hard it is to bear them.

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. This novel has nothing to do with anything I was working on. I just had a hankering for something familiar in which I could learn something new, as is so often the case when one re-reads Middlemarch. Daniel Deronda was written later in Eliot’s life and, perhaps oddly, seems more morally rigid: Grandcourt is simply wicked without any of Bulstrode’s philantropy; Daniel and Rachel are pure and virtuous without Dorothea’s pride or character growth. But despite that and despite the book’s length, I was once again completely absorbed by Gwendolen’s rise and fall, Daniel’s yearning for a sense of cultural belonging, and all the glittering detail of their rather glamorous lives.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I must have read this book three or four times already, but what happens is that any time I pick it up to look for a certain quote or flesh out my notes for a chapter, I then get sucked in and read it all over again. It’s not a long read; it’s lush with description of venerable old houses and dazzling ballgowns and trembling lips or curls, but despite all that it moves like a police procedural through the stages of malaise and marital deception. Chapters end on the cusp of crisis–does May know, or doesn’t she?! Will Ellen stay, or won’t she?!–and you must keep reading. And despite all that, it’s still as tender and moving and unforgiving a portrait of romantic love as I’ve ever read. No wonder it won Wharton a Pulitzer.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Another book I’ve read half a dozen times, in part because I used to assign the novel to my college composition class. The comp textbook was themed around popular culture–advertising, narrative media, political journalism, etc.–so from there we would move to Atwood’s dystopian vision of a corporatocratic future, in which society is stratified into those who work for multinational companies (and live safely on their insular compounds) and those who live outside and have little choice but to consume the food and clothes and media these companies provide. In the character of Jimmy, who we see grow from a sweet little boy to an entitled but deeply inseure man to the seemingly sole survivor of an apocalyptic event, the novel makes a biting critique of toxic masculinity, late capitalism its compulsory consumerism, and climate change denialism all at once.
The sequels to this novel are not quite so sharp or compelling, but I think I’ll have to re-read those too just to stay in this world a little longer.

Not a novel, but I have to give a shout-out to Unbearable Weight by Susan Bordo. First published in 1993, this book seems a little dated in some respects, such as its persistent concern with anorexia as a metaphor. But its sharp observations about bodies and capitalism, feminine beauty standards, and the shifts in cultural attitudes toward body size are still terrifyingly relevant, and I continually appreciate Bordo’s consistent if brief acknowledgements of how individuals of different races, genders, and cultural identifications negotiate these standards differently. More on this blog.

And if you missed it: books I read for the first time and loved in 2015!

Books by women I read and loved in 2015

The Doctor’s Wife by M. E. Braddon. Just as last year was my Year of Elizabeth Gaskell, 2015 was my year of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Like George Eliot, Braddon had the audacity to live with a man who was not her husband in the 19th century; unlike Eliot, Braddon wrote sensation novels about crime and adultery and mistaken identities, which were wildly popular in her day and somewhat forgotten in ours. Like P. D. James in our era, Braddon was a very smart and self-aware writer of genre. In fact, The Doctor’s Wife was so fun for me to read because it pushes back against some of the genre expectations. The doctor’s wife is not particularly clever but is an ardent reader of sensation novels, so you assume she’s going to end up like Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. But she refuses, and meanwhile there’s a lot of great commentary on the genre as well as on popular art and poetry of the period.
The Doctor’s Wife is also long and rambling, so it might not be everyone’s jam. If not, try Lady Audley’s Secret, which is a fairly tight thriller and also includes some sick burns against Pre-Raphaelite painting. I also read Braddon’s Henry Dunbar, The Golden Calf, and The Phantom Fortune, which are a bit shorter and all very absorbing.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. My love for this quiet and meditative post-apocalyptic novel is well-documented.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. In summary, this book is like a checklist of details I would normally find boring or played out: small town in the 1970s, dead teenage girl, family drama, etc. etc. Yet this is one of the most elegantly written and finely imagined novels I’ve read all year. As the teen girl’s family staggers and breaks down in the wake of her death, the narrative wheels back and forth in time to reveal a thousand decisions and circumstances–racial microaggressions, gendered expectations, the burden of familial love and the loneliness of social isolation–that brought them all to this juncture…. suggesting that no one, but really everyone, is responsible for the tragedy. I drank the book up in two days and cried a lot as it was ending.
If you’ve read it and loved it too, check out this lovely and thoughtful interview with the author courtesy of Nicole S Chung on The Toast.

A Thousand Acres by Jane SmileyKing Lear set on a family-run farm in mid-century Midwest, told from the perspective of the eldest daughter Ginny. The Lear adaptation is no mere gimmick: although there are recognizable allusions to the play, this is Ginny’s story and the major and minor dramas of her life are modern and finely detailed. It’s a great food studies book: lots of domestic and agriculture asides–I was wound up for days after finishing this book, thinking that I ought to be mending or putting up pickles or cooking breakfast for somebody–and the characters’ struggle with organic and traditional farming technique is still very relevant. The book is also horrifying and tragic, but beautifully told.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. Most of the time when I am praising books, I say “I couldn’t put it down!” But I did put this book down, often, and I read it very slowly, especially at the beginning: it is so dense with sensory detail and cultural hints about its fantasy realms that it’s like every scene unfolds in slow motion. But this makes sense for the narrator, who travels the island pepper farm of his childhood to a decadent empire across the sea, and immerses himself completely in the experiences of being in the big city. I took little sips of this book for the first quarter of it, and then suddenly things picked up and hurtled toward a rather unexpected convergence of ghost story, adventure story, and love story. This is a book to buy in print, not on Kindle as I did; it’s a book that revels in books, the highs and lows of giving oneself over to storytelling, and it would be a pleasure to read it in a more tactile form.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I picked up this book at the recommendation of Michelle Vider and it did not disappoint. Do not judge it by the free sample, if you go that route, because the story begins very comfortable and familiar with an ordinary girl who turns out to be secretly extraordinary. But then there’s a battle a mere quarter of the way through, and then another, and then another, and the author does not pull punches on these scenes, which are rendered in cinematic detail and are all the scarier and higher stakes in contrast with scenes of beauty and wonder and the raw vulnerability of the heroine. I did not mean to read this book in three days but I couldn’t do otherwise.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I actually started this book several years ago, but set it aside for some reason. I remember liking it well enough to read some passages out loud to my partner of that time, but I wasn’t expecting the level of self-referential snark and breaking the fourth wall, and probably moved on to a novel of more traditional manners. But I returned to it this year expressly for those qualities, and it is a delight, even though I was deeply horrified by Catherine’s terrible friends. Also: “That is a compliment which gives me no pleasure” is the perfect hollaback, and while I don’t think Catherine is capable of delivering it with the icy contempt it deserves, I am sure that I can.

Honorable mentions: I did read Ancillary Justice, and while I found the writing a little unsatisfying–it’s hard to keep up with that ambitious worldbuilding, maybe–I did find its galaxy and its story very interesting and would be happy to talk about it with you! (In fact I have a half-written post in the draft box that uses the ship’s plural perspectives to draw out some of my weird feelings about working in retail, so we’ll get to it.) And I read Lolly Willowes, a short and pleasant novel about a 19th century woman who gives the finger to the marriage plot and becomes a witch. A post I wrote about that book for my food blog got Freshly Pressed and now I have something like three thousand “followers,” some percentage of which may be real humans.

Last year, when I tallied up my favorite books written by female authors, I resolved to find and read more books by queer and nonwhite authors in 2015. I did not fully see this resolution through, in a large part due to the unusual circumstances of my year: I quit my full-time job to work toward completing my dissertation, leaving less money and less mental energy for leisure reading. When I did read for fun, I chose cheap or free books within my comfort zones: popular novels by 19th century women, fantasy fiction, etc. I also re-read a lot of books this year: some for my dissertation, others for comfort.

For the next year, I look forward to doing a little more research and expanding my literary horizons: Ancillary Justice gave me a taste for science fiction, a genre I haven’t spent much time with since I was a teen, and I know there are a number of women out there doing amazing work in the genre. If you’d like to follow along, I keep my shelf up to date on Booklikes.

On strong being the “new” pretty

I drafted this post months ago when the posts linked below were posted; just now got around to fleshing out the text I wanted to quote.

At The Daily Dot, Anne Thériault addressed the implications of hashtags like #StrongIsTheNewPretty and #StrongIsTheNewSkinny in the context of current media depictions of so-called Strong Female Characters (with a shout-out to this essay by Tasha Robinson which I loved). Thériault’s argument is that the new boss is pretty much the same as the old boss–same old racist, ablist, oppressive beauty norms dressed up as “inspiration” or “empowerment.”

….We don’t need updated standards for how women look or act—we need to scrap those standards altogether. We need characters and memes that reflect the diversity of women’s lives.

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville (where I first saw the above link) adds that this supposed celebration of strong women rings a bit hollow because when women exhibit strength and fortitude in ways that challenge oppressive norms, they are definitively not celebrated.

Never is that more clear than when a woman actually exhibits strength in her own defense. When she draws boundaries. When she physically harms a man who is trying to harm her. When she engages in self-care. When she categorically refuses to put up with splaining or harassment or catcalling or whatever other horseshit variation of misogyny to which some dude is trying to subject her. . . . That’s how the Strong Woman becomes the weak bitch, when a woman is strong for herself and for the pleasure of nobody else.

Both of these posts are brief but thoughtful and worth a quick read. To this, I wanted to add that not only is fitspo just another shade of thinspo, it’s not anywhere near a new shade. The athletic, fit, toned female body has been celebrated as the ideal female body for several decades. I’ll let Susan Bordo, author of Unbearable Weight, do the talking. My notes are from this edition: Bordo, Susan.  Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. For those of you following along at home, a .pdf of the relevant chapter, “Reading the Slender Body,” is currently hosted by Middlebury. This essay was first published in 1989; the 10th anniversary edition is largely unchanged, and yet its argument is still relevant to this conversation we are having in 2015.

The stated purpose of “Reading the Slender Body” is to explore how diet and exercise are encoded and normalized in culture, and to define the ideal of slenderness that dominates contemporary visual imagery of bodies (particularly women’s bodies). Bordo begins by discussing how bodies can function as symbols in two contrasting ways: body shape is sometimes interpreted to indicate the individual’s position in the social hierarchy, and sometimes it is read as an expression of the internal state of the individual (187). She gives a few historical examples to illustrate: in the early 19th century, successful tradesmen might flaunt a bulging stomach, considered by themselves and their peers to be an outward symbol of material wealth; in the same era, aristocrats favored a slender form that seemed distant and aloof from base hunger or bourgeois grasping. Eventually the bourgeois too came to embrace a genteel slenderness, and around that time excess weight gradually accrued the connotation of moral laxity. The late 19th century is when doctors and what I suppose you might call lifestyle experts started advocating weight loss to the general public, although this would go in and out of vogue over the next century. In a similar fashion, the symbolic function of muscular bodies has shifted: where visible muscles were once associated with manual labor, animality, and weak mental faculties, we now sometimes read muscularity as a sign of self-control and self-discipline (191,193).

Of course, the interpretation of the body is very dependent on other intersecting signifiers of race, class, gender, and so forth. To return to the example of muscles, it’s important to observe that lower class men and men of color with bulging muscles still risk being depicted or viewed as animalistic. And since muscles continue to be associated with masculinity, the muscles of women are expected to be sleek and toned, not bulging. Combined with the specific expectations of female physicality, the slender body is particularly “overdetermined” as the ideal for women, causing women to grapple with it to a greater degree than most men (187, 205).

So what is a “slender” body? One that is not only shed of excess weight, but has smooth lines and taut surfaces. “Until the 1980s, excess weight was the target of most ads for diet products,” Bordo writes; “today, one is much more likely to find the enemy constructed as bulge, fat, or flab” (189). A slender body can be visibly muscled, but not to the point of disrupting a sleek, spare silhouette. A slender female body may have prominent breasts or buttocks, but those attributes should only set off the contrast of a trim waistline and toned limbs. The slender ideal is not necessarily a small body but a “contained” body, with firm flesh that doesn’t wiggle. Bordo considers the slender ideal of the 1980s and the more waifish ideal of the 1960s as more alike than different:

This perspective helps illuminate an important continuity of meaning in our culture between compulsive dieting and body-building, and it reveals why it has been so easy for contemporary images of female attractiveness to oscillate between a spare, “minimalist” look and a solid, muscular, athletic look. . . The two ideas, thought superficially very different, are united in battle against a common enemy: the soft, the loose, unsolid, excess flesh. (191).

In other words, Bordo would almost certainly see “strong is the new pretty” as mere repackaging, another rotation of fashion’s wheel. Sometimes the “it” girl is a waif, sometimes a bombshell, sometimes a sporty Cool Girl, but in late capitalism she is always a fit girl.

Bordo cites one reason for this–and perhaps one key difference between weight loss obsession today versus the 19th century–from another theorist named Robert Crawford: contemporary capitalism puts two simultaneous and conflicting burdens on its constituents. We are supposed to be producers and providers in this economy, and so we must suppress our desires in order to be productive workers. We are also supposed to be consumers, and as consumers we are continually barraged with products meant to incite desire. “The regulation of desire thus becomes an ongoing problem, as we find ourselves continually besieged by temptation, while socially condemned for overindulgence” (199). The ideal of the slender body emerges out of that hostility toward uncontrolled indulgence, or perhaps the anxiety of our lack of control in general:

The firm, developed body has become a symbol of correct attitude; it means that one ‘cares’ about oneself and how one appears to others, suggesting willpower, energy, control over infantile impulse, the ability to “shape your life” (195).

On the flip side, if a body is not firm and contained, it may be read as undisciplined, uncontrolled, willful, careless—a bias that is has been shown again and again in studies of workplaces, medical services, or social relationships. (Here’s a recent one.) Weight bias demonstrates both of the symbolic functions of body shape: in a great deal of media, journalism, and social research, fat on a body is viewed as an outward symbol of inward lack of control. Not coincidentally, fat on a body is also frequently read as a lower-class indicator, or at the very least “absence of all those ‘managerial’ abilities that, according to the dominant ideology, confer upward mobility” (195). The ideology of the slender body feeds into existent biases against nonconforming, bulging, soft bodies. (Which is, after all, most bodies!)

Insert unfortunately necessary disclaimers here: this is not an essay against slenderness! There is nothing wrong with being fit or toned or what have you. Bordo’s essay is a criticism of the ideology of the slender body, a complicated system of ideas and images that elevate the status of slenderness at the expense of other body shapes. The ideology of the slender body is the violent, militaristic language of “targeting” bulges and “burning” fat; the near uniformity of slenderness in the world’s most visible women, who are nonetheless Photoshopped free of their creases and curves; the ubiquity of fat bias; and in a thousand other cultural artifacts.

And this is also not to say that it is wrong to enjoy or admire physical strength, to find one’s own strength empowering, or to work to become stronger. Being strong feels great! And as Bordo emphasizes throughout her chapters, women should not be thought of as “dupes” to certain ideologies of beauty; if women pursue the bodily ideal, it may well be because we desire the privileges that supposedly come with it. Or, perhaps for some, to reject the full-figured curviness of a Victorian or postwar ideal may be a way to embrace “liberation from a domestic, reproductive destiny” (206).

But the aim of “Reading the Slender Body” is to draw out some of the encoded meanings of this body type as it is depicted and reproduced in culture, and that includes shedding light on the ways it operates as a vehicle of oppression. Strength is a privilege enjoyed by the temporarily able-bodied, and being strong does not always correlate to appearing fit or strong; bodies that do not visually meet fitspo goals are not less valuable bodies. And I wish to tie Bordo’s essay back to the links that introduced this post, which remind us that the expressions of strength we value in women are still severely curtailed by cultural demands to be supportive, available, and accommodating. If anything, trying to squeeze “X” (strong, fit) into the framework of “Y” (pretty, skinny) only emphasizes that containment.