Blogging “Yes” Day 5: Cover Girl Beauty Standards and Self-Worth

9 04 2010

For day five of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read the essay “How Do You Fuck a Fat Woman?” by writer and fat acceptance blogger Kate Harding.  This is a fantastic essay that I can’t recommend enough about Harding’s own experiences and how narrow beauty standards lead to the appalling suggestion that “rape is a compliment” for fat women, as well as reducing fat women’s own self-worth.  I have just a few thoughts to add, particular concerning beauty standards, self-worth, and confidence in a very heteronormative world.

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Construction of the Female Body in Gynecology

4 04 2009

I attended an interesting talk today at the CRT at 20 conference on the topic of medical education and cultural competency, focusing especially on women of color’s experiences with gynecology.  I started thinking about a tangential topic that I think is sometimes overlooked in LGBT studies: lesbians’ experience with sexual and reproductive health care services.  

Later I will probably post some comments on how lesbians experience sexual and reproductive health care generally and differently from heterosexual women.  Just now, though, I had a thought about the construction of the female body and how badly this jives with feminism and with lesbianism.  

There has been a lot of talk among feminists about how the female sexual organs are reduced to their reproductive function, and how women’s sexual pleasure can be effectively erased from a discussion about women’s anatomy.  My thought is that the woman’s body is sexualized, but it is sexualized only with reference to the man/the male body.  

When you think about this part of the body, it’s likely that one of your first thoughts concerns the vagina.  My guess is that gynecologists and other health care professionals see the vagina in two ways: as a receptacle for the penis (focusing on sexual health, contraception, disease, etc.) or as a passageway for a child (focusing on pregnancy, fertility, etc.)  I think this is also true of the culture in general.

One problem is that the vagina is, for many women, not the site of sexual pleasure (or not the sole site), and so there is a separation between health and pleasure.  I would posit that it is difficult to celebrate and enjoy the experience of health and health care when it is separated in this way from sexual pleasure.  I think most of us experience our body in vastly different ways in the bedroom and in the doctor’s office.  Another problem is that it makes the healthcare experience irrelevant for lesbian women, especially lesbian women not interested in giving birth.  Our concerns may be difficult to express because society and our health care experiences have not given us a language to express them.  I know that I find the gynecologist fairly irrelevant to me – I get an annual pap smear and I get birth control for migraines, but that’s it.  My doctor is not necessarily someone I trust, nor do I associate him with my overall health.

I think that this disconnect may also have something to do with why lesbian women often do not go in for services such as pap smears, mammograms, and STI tests.  STIs are often conceived of as a penis-in-vagina consequence.  Even if we know that STIs can be transferred through any fluid contact, the lesbian community tends to see barrier methods as weird.  If not weird, they’re just a pain.  I’d guess that many of us haven’t asked our health care provider for advice concerning sexual health.  I’ve had experiences with a female gynecologist who told me I only needed pap smears if I were having sex with a man, and a female resident whom I asked about sexual health and she said she didn’t know anything about STI risks.  I’ve also had a lot of frustrating experiences when I’m talking with a health care professional about PCOS and he or she tells me repeatedly about my fertility options and forces literature on me, even though I say that I am not interested in having children, ever.  I was even once told “oh, you’ll change your mind.”  I find this condescending, and the lack of agency makes me fearful of healthcare. 

I’m not sure exactly how this could be fixed, but I do think that in anatomy courses and wherever else medical students learn about the female body, the woman should be construed as a whole person, and her experiences of her body considered fully.  I want health care professionals to think of women’s sexuality in terms of her own body, and all of it – not in terms of a penis and a vagina, plus possible “alternatives.”  I also think that healthcare professionals need to learn how to have effective dialogues that do not make assumptions about sexual practices or reproductive choices.  I don’t know how we get there, but I hope it’s where we’re going.





It’s all in the magazines

11 06 2008

Forgive the radio silence over the past few days (and thank you all the new commenters for dropping by and saying hello!)

I’ve been thinking for a while of doing a post about butch and femme, but it turns out I have more to say than I thought on the subject, so I’d like to ruminate on that for a while.  

Somewhat related, though, is a little sidebar about self-worth and appearance.  Of course we all hear a lot about how the media portrays women as stick thin and gorgeous, how detrimental the narrowing of “acceptable” fashion is to young girls, etc.  All completely true.  But I think it’s interesting as someone who’s an adult and not a fashion follower by any stretch of the imagination to notice how societal norms affect my own body image.

I no longer have a problem with my weight, which is a minor miracle.  Though I’ve always known intellectually that I was healthy and not overweight, I had a lot of trouble with it for a very long time.  These days I find myself relatively happy with my figure, especially when I’m clothed, and at least not freaking out and crying or going on a diet immediately when I’m not. But then the old self-confidence zapper popped up where I least expected it.

I got a haircut yesterday.  I actually am coming to terms with it, as I normally do after a day or so, and though I don’t love the style I’ll live with it until it grows out.  But yesterday, it got worse and worse.  Everytime I looked at the mirror, little doubts crept into my head, until I was imagining just how unattractive and undesireable I looked and had to push back tears.  This is so strange to me, because I don’t value myself on how I look at all.  It’s not that it’s androgynous – I like androgyny!  I think it’s just that I left the realm of conventional beauty and some little inner me was saying “good job, loser.  You’ll never get a date.”  

Of course, that’s how society trains women to view themselves.  Your self worth is measured by your ability to attract others.  I’ve always felt good and better about myself when I felt like others were attracted to me.  The silly thing, though, is that I’m not particularly wound up in love and sex right now.  I’m not on the market for a relationship.  If someone asked me out tomorrow, I might say yes, but if someone said “hey, let’s get serious right away!” I’d run in the other direction.  So why on earth should my self-worth be tied to how likely my current appearance is to get me a date?  Popular culture, really.  I am not amused.