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!

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.