The instructions specified that I got undressed. A notepad in hand, I stood in front of the bedroom mirror in my apartment and looked for the things that I loved about my body. This exercise was something that I would never have tried on my own, something that I had been asked to do in order to complete a program called The Body Project. The entire exercise was proposed to me by UConn’s body positivity peer education group, SHAPE.
The Body Project‘s goal is to teach young women to “resist cultural pressures to conform to the appearance ideal standard of female beauty and to reduce their pursuit of unrealistic bodies.” Having grown up both slim and white with western-European physical features, I didn’t think that this program would have much of an impact on my relationship with my body. However, scrutinizing my own reflection quickly led to larger questions about my physical appearance within the popular culture’s notions of female beauty.
In his book, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, renowned art historian Kenneth Clark notes how “the English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude” (3). While the nude is culturally sanctioned as art and, therefore, an educated achievement of civilization, “to be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition” (3). As an English and Economics major at the University of Connecticut, art isn’t my forte, and I don’t think of my own body as a work of art. However, this very perspective is what separates the beautifully nude from the shamefully naked.
Clark’s study focuses heavily on the nudes that were crafted during the Victorian period, an era when the average well-to-do white woman pursuing fashion wore heavy dresses that secured her body underneath stays and girdles. Today, women who choose to pair their sport shorts with a t-shirt (bare skin abound) are presenting themselves in a way that is considered to be socially acceptable. This discrepancy regarding how much of the body is fashionable for women to expose is analyzed by Roberta P. Seid in her essay, “Too ‘Close to the Bone,” in which she writes“fashionable beauty is no longer about the clothes covering the body, but about the naked body itself” (10). Since the 1980s, Seid notes, fashion magazines have commonly displayed naked or leotarded bodies more frequently than bodies that are fully clothed. Think of Kendall Jenner’s recent (and much-contested) ballet video for Vogue and the Instagram accounts of young women paid to pose in their bathing suits in “exotic” locations. No longer can women seek a physical ideal of beauty simply by “manipulating cosmetics and clothing” – now they must also alter “the once private stretches of the body” (Seid 10). The increased criticism and exposure surrounding modern women’s bodies may be one reason that eating disorders have become rampant among American women.
However, what interests me is the impact that these trends have upon the language and literature being produced in America. If, as contemporary culture seems to confirm, the importance of dress has been largely stripped from American ideals of female beauty and replaced by the value of the bare flesh, is this conceptual alteration in the definition of female beauty also reflected in our literature?
I decided to run a small case study, more to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity than anything else. I visited the UConn Bookstore in Storrs Center and picked out a few books from the classics section, and then a few from the fiction section that had been published within the last ten years. Since American institutions are designed around the white male body, I intentionally chose novels that were written by white male authors. Then, I sat down with these works and started flipping through until I found the sections that introduced the story’s primary female character.
In The Great Gatsby, Nick first meets Daisy as one of “two young women [who] were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering” (10). Tom Sawyer falls in love at first sight with Becky Thatcher – “a lovely little blue-eyed creature with yellow hair plaited into two long-tails, white summer frock and embroidered pantalettes” (Twain 28). In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Jake comments, “Brett was damn good looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s… She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey.”
Then, in Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s Peggy is described as “helplessly conspicuous. Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young” (4). Immediately before these physical attributes, she’s described as someone who “frightened nobody,” and “possessed a jock sort of fearlessness” (4). The second wife of Philip Roth’s Everyman is “a tall, very thin white-haired woman” who speaks in a “soft voice” (2). In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, women are all but absent. Pages in, the long-gone wife is described in a memory as “standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand” (54).
What does it all mean? I can hardly tell you. If there is any pattern, I’d say, it’s that the recent novels seem to seek to give readers the general shape of the woman, while the older novels focus on what that woman has chosen to wear. This would suggest that American literature has reflected recent trends in fashionable beauty that emphasize form over attire. Obviously, my case study is hardly large enough to draw any definitive conclusions. However, it was still fascinating to compare how female characters were being framed within all of these famous novels.
Yet, after all of that research, I’m still not sure that it makes a substantial difference whether or not the female lead is first described in terms of her clothing or her curves. To be completely honest, having read all of these novels before, I didn’t remember how any of the female protagonists were first described. Those first descriptions simply didn’t have a lasting effect on the way I experienced each book. It is possible that I am expecting too much from these white male authors and white male protagonists. It’s also a possibility that the samples of novels I chose were falsely homogeneous. However, all that I wanted to see when I looked at these novels again, was a female character– even if she’s a love interest–who isn’t white, or slim, or perfectly curvy, or youthful, or heterosexual.
In a recent article, Carmen Machado exalted the “unapologetic fat woman.” When I read her essay my first response was this is what I want to see more of in creative writing. I want to be exposed to beautiful women who do not fit the standard American model of female beauty. Give me women who have acne, women who are loud, women who take up space and demand attention. And then, tell me about all the other men and women who find these characters captivating.
It took me until I was twenty, standing with a notepad in front of my mirror, to realize I’m living in the midst of a cultural crisis of women who don’t know how to love their bodies. Body hatred has been recorded by academics, dispersed by the media, and described in popular literature. Language reflects and reaffirms the way we think about ourselves and our bodies. I don’t think this cultural complex is something that can be solved easily. I don’t even know if this problem can be resolved in my lifetime, if ever. But until then, I will keep reading and writing about women who are both unapologetically and confidently flawed.