Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Body as a Record of Personal Experience and Cultural Identity - A 'Dive into Worldbuilding!' Hangout report with Video

I must say I was really happy to find the notes for this one, because I always wanted to write out this report! I was joined for this one by Erin Peterson and Glenda Pfeiffer.

I was initially inspired to this topic by encountering a number of articles in the media, one of which was an article about the incredible risks of Botox injections. One of these risks is that of losing the ability to form emotional connections with people because Botox causes you to lose the ability to echo other people's facial expressions. Not even kidding here - it scares me. The lure of Botox is the promise that you will lack wrinkles on your face, but that's not all you'll be missing. Your body, and particularly its wrinkes, scars, etc. is a record of your experience, what makes you who you are both individually and culturally. That is quite an incredible thing to erase!

As Erin said, this is a topic that gets us into the double standard of gender where women are valued first, and most importantly, on the basis of their appearance as beautiful, youthful and attractive, where men are valued for their power and experience - even in the arenas of sports and politics. Discussing inequity was not the main focus of our discussion, however.

We talked about how tattoos are often used to mark experience and identity. Many people choose to get tattoos as talismans of experience, often after some event they feel has changed them dramatically, marked a life transition or a big accomplishment. Glenda mentioned that tattoos can signify membership in a particular social group. Even tattooed eyeliner isn't just about ease, but it's also about claiming membership in the group of people who think makeup is a daily essential. The same would go for tattooed lip gloss. In my Varin world, the Imbati servant caste voluntarily (and proudly) take forehead tattoos as a symbol of both adulthood and their caste's special vocation of service.

Not all body markings are taken by choice. There are imposed social markers like the brands that used to be put on criminals in colonial America for a first serious offense (a brand on the hand, rather than an extended imprisonment, was the norm. For the second it was hanging). You hear horror stories about people being forced to take tattoos to "mark" them as belonging to someone else emotionally (which borders on slavery in my opinion). Scars are also marks of experience that may not be voluntary. There is voluntary scarification, as Glenda mentioned, but we also have things like mastectomy scars, Caesarean section scars, scars from accidental injuries of all varieties. Our interpretation of these marks can be various - they can be marks of shame that must be hidden, or they can be worn with pride, depending on the context in which they came about.

We spoke about intersex children, who are sometimes given surgical procedures to alter the appearance of their genitals so that they can conform physically to gender norm. This is often a mistake, because the doctor's opinion of what the child's physical sex looks most like is not necessarily what the child will identify as as they get older. Being raised as one thing when you are mentally another is thus a problem not only experienced by transgender people.

Clothes, though not a part of your body, definitely interact with it in the way that we display identity. One big issue that comes up, which we felt was relevant to this discussion, was which parts of one's body one is expected to display. There are tons of articles out their about unfair dress codes where women's bodies are required to be hidden because they are considered "distracting" to male students. There is much potential to display a society's cultural values in the way that one handles the exposure of different body areas and parts. Indeed, there is a very interesting display going on right now (ages after this original discussion!) about Japanese erotic woodblock prints, where unlike European erotic art of the same period, the bodies are typically covered with beautiful clothes and only the critical erotic parts are exposed (European art tends to do the opposite). You only have to look at the history of swimming suits in order to see that these values also change over time. Swim shirts are now coming back into fashion as a result of our knowledge of sun danger! And of course changing skirt lengths have always been a big topic for fashion.

Many things write our history on our skin - we can see the long-term effects of extreme sunburn and tanning in how the skin changes, and also the effects of long-term smoking. Glenda pointed out the interesting fact that tanning used to be considered lower-class because it was associated with agricultural work, and wealthy people were protected from the sun. But after the rise of industry, people worked in factories where they were not exposed to sun, and the mark of wealth became a tanned skin because the wealthy had leisure to tan. 

Other kinds of experiences that are recorded in our bodies are our first experiences of sex, as well as pregnancy. Pregnancy not only changes one's body but changes all kinds of expectations around us about whether our bodies are our own and whether our personal space can be invaded. There is also a strong cultural belief that the effects of pregnancy on our bodies should be erased as soon as possible - but should they? There might be cultures where such marks of motherhood would be displayed or at least treated with pride.

Lastly there are myths about behaviors that might potentially change our bodies (but really don't!), like masturbation. It turns out that Queen Victoria didn't think it was happening, at least among women.

I think we all felt at the end of this discussion as though we'd only scratched the surface of what is available to this topic. However, I really enjoyed talking about it and maybe we can pick it up again sometime.

And here is the video if you'd like more details!

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