“God, The Human Body!”: People as Scenery

This is a guest post by Laurie and Debbie. Debbie Notkin is a body image activist, a feminist science fiction advocate, and a publishing professional. She is chair of the motherboard of the Tiptree Award and will be one of the two guests of honor at the next WisCon in May 2012. Laurie is a photographer whose photos make up the books Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes (edited and text by Debbie Notkin) and Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes (edited by Debbie Notkin, text by Debbie Notkin and Richard F. Dutcher). Her photographs have been exhibited in many cities, including New York, Tokyo, Kyoto, Toronto, Boston, London, Shanghai and San Francisco. Her solo exhibition “Meditations on the Body” at the National Museum of Art in Osaka featured 100 photographs. Her most recent project is Women of Japan, clothed portraits of women from many cultures and backgrounds. Laurie and Debbie blog together at Body Impolitic, talking about body image, photography, art and related issues. This post originally appeared on Body Impolitic.

Debbie says:

Lynne Murray pointed me at this article by John Jeremiah Sullivan on his trip to Cuba with his Cuban-American wife and their daughter in the spring of 2012.

The whole article is interesting, and Sullivan’s complete unawareness of his American privilege is simultaneously business-as-usual and jaw-dropping. He’s been to Cuba two or three times. He really does think he knows all about it. The moment where he fails to tell the Cuban cook at the hotel omelet station why he doesn’t approve of the embargo between U.S. and Cuba deserves a blog post of its own. Racialicious? Are you interested? There’s some overly familiar anti-Communism in the second half of the article that you could throw in for free.

What struck Lynne and me, from a Body Impolitic perspective, is this:

Every time I looked up from the book, there were more people in and by the pool, as if they were surfacing out of the water, out of the ripples. I had black sunglasses on, so after a while I propped myself at an angle at which I could seem to read the book but really be moving my eyeballs, staring at everybody. God, the human body! It was Speedos and bikinis, no matter the age or body type. You would never see a poolside scene in the United States with people showing this much skin, except at a pool where people were there precisely to show off the perfection of their bodies. The body not consciously sculptured through working out has become a secret shame and grotesquerie in America, but this upper-class Euro-Latin crowd had not received that news, to my distraction. I took in veins and cellulite, paunches and man-paps, the weird shinglelike sagging that starts to occur on the back of the thighs, cleavage that showed a spoiled-grape-like wrinkling, the ash-mottled skin of permanently sun-torched shoulders, all of it beautiful. All of it beautiful and tormenting.

We’re at a hotel pool here, a hotel elegant enough to have an omelet station, and a large pool. Sullivan says he finds all the flesh “beautiful,” but everything else he says about it belies that belief. I find most of veins and cellulite, paunches and man-paps, sagging on the back of the thighs, wrinkled cleavage, and sun-mottled skin beautiful. I’m an American–I didn’t find this effortlessly. I’ve had to learn to work with what I see, to (in Laurie’s words) “make the invisible visible.” I would have loved being at that poolside recently. Sullivan is an evocative writer, and his descriptions are very visual. As he makes clear, however, he has done none of that work–he just thinks he should, so he gives lip-service to “beautiful.”

Where he goes from there is back into extreme American privilege:

You watched an 18-year-old Argentine girl in her reproductive springtime walk past an ancient Soviet-looking woman, her body a sculpture of blocks atop blocks, and both of them wearing black bikinis, the furtive looks they gave each other, full of emotions straight from the Pliocene, from the savanna. The old men scowled from behind mirrored shades. The young men tensed every muscle in order to seem not obsessed with how the girls saw them, a level of self-consciousness I found I could no longer really re-enter, as if it had been a drunken state. Everybody was stealing looks at one another, envying or disdaining or gazing, like me. We were all inside a matrix of lust and erotic sadness, all turning into versions of one another, or seeing our past selves.

Ask yourself: is that what was going on outside of Sullivan’s head? People of all ages, all over the spectrum of “conventional beauty” (as it is defined in the United States, the country most responsible for spreading our movies and advertising around the globe), are at a pool, wearing what they feel like wearing, and the driving emotion they are all experiencing is envy? The driving behavior is comparison? It’s possible.

I wasn’t there. I’ve never been to Cuba or even to the Caribbean or Latin America. Still, I would bet next week’s food that most of the people at that pool were just swimming, just lying at the poolside enjoying the sun. When they were looking at each other, they were either enjoying what they saw or moving on to the next person. It’s Sullivan, American, journalist, professional judge, who was “stealing looks, envying or disdaining.” He never says anything about what he looks like, or how he feels he looked to them; that just underlies everything he does say. He describes himself as “gazing,” but his prose says that he’s the one who wasn’t gazing. He’s the only person at that pool we can be certain was comparing.

At the end of the article, he describes a woman he met on an earlier trip to Cuba:

,,, a woman appeared in the passageway that led from the front room into the main part of the house, a woman with rolls of fat on her limbs, like a baby, and skin covered in moles. She walked on crutches with braces on her knees. She had a beautiful natural Afro with a scarf tied around it. She was simply a visually magnificent human being.

Again, this is evocative, visual writing. I feel like I can see her. What I don’t feel is like I know anything about what Sullivan means by “visually magnificent.” He brings her into the story to make a political point; he describes her in detail because if he says “a woman,” most readers will have a completely different image. The “visually magnificent,” to my ear, makes her sound like a sunset or a waterfall.

The trick, which Sullivan apparently has not learned (and probably doesn’t even believe is possible) is to see people as people, not scenery.


Similar Posts (automatically generated):

About Guest Blogger

Guest Bloggers are most welcome to diversify the range of views and experiences presented on this blog. The opinions of Guest Bloggers do not necessarily represent other bloggers on Feministe: differing voices are important to us. Readers are cordially invited to follow our guidelines to submit a Guest Post pitch for consideration.
This entry was posted in General and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to “God, The Human Body!”: People as Scenery

  1. dc says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Jeremiah_Sullivan
    (well i know this is catty,but he’s not exactly Idris Elba himself,lol)

  2. dc says:

    (ps-
    i get the irony/pettyness of my comment.
    and IE is also a great actor…..)
    **ends derail**

  3. zardoz says:

    Reproductive springtime? WTF?

    • Donna L says:

      And: “emotions straight from the Pliocene, from the savanna.” Where all the Australopitheci used to parade around in their black bikinis, giving each other furtive looks, making sure they all had opposable thumbs.

      I’m not a big fan of that kind of hyperbole, but I’m not sure how it’s possible to read this and be so sure that he *doesn’t* actually see all those diverse bodies as beautiful. In an exoticising kind of way.

      • pheenobarbidoll says:

        giving each other furtive looks, making sure they all had opposable thumbs.

        this last bit made me laugh though.

      • Alexandra says:

        Yeah, Donna, giving it some more thought, I think you’re right — I think for him, all of those strange wrinkly bodies poolside were just another weird, wacky exotic part of his weird, wacky, exotic trip to Cuba.

        I also think the writer is perceptive, with a knack for imagery that sometimes places his prose at a higher level than his analysis.

    • konkonsn says:

      I made a very unpleasant frowny face at the screen when I read that.

  4. Alexandra says:

    We’re at a hotel pool here, a hotel elegant enough to have an omelet station, and a large pool. Sullivan says he finds all the flesh “beautiful,” but everything else he says about it belies that belief. I find most of veins and cellulite, paunches and man-paps, sagging on the back of the thighs, wrinkled cleavage, and sun-mottled skin beautiful. I’m an American–I didn’t find this effortlessly. I’ve had to learn to work with what I see, to (in Laurie’s words) “make the invisible visible.” I would have loved being at that poolside recently. Sullivan is an evocative writer, and his descriptions are very visual. As he makes clear, however, he has done none of that work–he just thinks he should, so he gives lip-service to “beautiful.”

    I don’t know that I think this is fair. Sullivan’s description of the poolside seemed to me to be coming from a couple of places:

    -culture shock about different standards of covering up/nakedness from America to Cuba
    -the awareness that the bodies of the people he’s seeing are not attractive according to conventional American standards
    -a genuine pleasure at the diversity of bodies he’s seeing and the freedom that represents.

    I mean, as you say yourself, it takes work as an American to deprogram yourself to see different sorts of bodies as genuinely beautiful. Honest to goodness work! And you say that Sullivan has done none of that work himself, that he is merely pretending to see beauty that you can tell by the way he writes – but that’s not the impression I get myself. I get the impression that he is surprised by how beautiful he finds the people around him. I found this essay beautifully written and effortlessly immersive.

  5. may says:

    This is an excellent post. Thank you. Beautiful evocative writing is wonderful, and it should still be questioned.

  6. A4 says:

    I think it’s pretty galling of you to write a one page post criticizing the author of a 10 page article for not engaging authentically with the people he is describing, and claiming that you know this because you yourself have reached the upper echelons of seeing True Beuaty. I see far more thought and personal engagement in Sullivan’s article where he brings real people he has seen to life than I do in this one where you simply assert your enlightened nature.

    • A4 says:

      Also, summing up his experience of “He’s been to Cuba two or three times.” in no way accounts for the deep familial connection he obviously has combined with his self-awareness of the relative shallowness of that connection. It makes him sound like a visiting businessman which is simply not the case.

  7. Foxy says:

    Beauty is both subjective and objective

    • im says:

      This… could actually make for an interesting philosophical discussion. Although we would need to coin some new words.

      Objective beauty might be defined as something that is in some situation a sign of fitness for something or capability (although this is not really aesthetic beauty)?

      Even if that fitness or capability is being totally subverted.

      I loathe the body-positive replacement of compulsory thin-ness with compulsory finding-previously-hideous-sights-beautiful (which should not imply that I hate all body-positive anything everywhere always), but you could say there is another beauty here, the extroversion of being able to ignore one’s own physical unpleasantnesses. But you’ve still just got two different things opposing each other…

      • tomek says:

        well i think bit extreme what say that being not thin is hideous. there is in between fat and thin a good balance which not hideous.

  8. Chuchundra says:

    I enjoyed the piece very much, Thanks for linking to it.

  9. im says:

    I can… tell something is wrong here but I can’t tell what gives him American privilege?

    Is the problem that he is being so analyzing or something/?

    As somebody who does not buy into body positivity (and who is faintly horrified by the idea of scrunching your aesthetic senses into a politically correct mold) I find possibly-fake body positivity rather AWFUL.

  10. francesca says:

    It is somewhat interesting to me but mostly horrifying, that the “sanctimonious women’s studies crowd” has latched on the the idea of ‘projection’ to use in their rhetoric. I guess y’all took a cue from the criticisms levied towards your ‘crowd’, and it’s a case of appropriation in order to deflect criticism kind of thing.
    As someone who is more inclined to psychology than politics, and who is capable of communicating with others like myself, I can say with almost 99% certainty that while the everything-is-political crowd has a handle on politics, when it comes to psychological projection, you people are the absolute queens of it. If it makes you feel better to re-deploy this argument, go for it I guess, but honestly no one knows one way or another what the 25 people at the pool were feeling except the people themselves (you know, inside of themselves..??). Any interpretation , even that of a gloriously politically aware person, is a reading-into, and says something about the person reading into the scene, that’s it. The arrogance of this post is pretty grotesque.

    .

Comments are closed.