Rebranding safe haven laws

—Laury Oaks

Last week, the Republican-heavy Indiana House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to enhance its safe haven law and voiced support for a newly marketed baby-saving product: the Safe Haven Baby Box. Indiana firefighter, medic, adoptee, non-profit founder, and pro-life speaker Monica Kelsey is promoting metal, black 2-foot long incubators branded with SafeHavenBabyBoxes.com as a solution to a problem that haunts baby abandonment prevention advocates: Despite safe haven laws passed in every state between 1999 and 2009, newborns continue to be unsafely abandoned.

Advocates of Indiana’s baby boxes are concerned that distressed mothers fail to safely relinquish their newborns because they fear facing a first responder, required by most state’s laws. Sidelining other relevant issues, including coercion, fathers’ rights, and even baby-knapping, the problem is distilled and oversimplified.

Drawing on centuries-old European practices, heated incubators located at an exterior wall of a hospital were installed in 1999 in Hamburg, Germany. Known as baby boxes, flaps, or hatches, this system is sponsored by non-governmental organizations and religious organizations in 11 European countries and in China, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea. In the US, state governments legislate safe haven sites and non-profit baby abandonment prevention organizations promote their use. The embrace of baby boxes by Indiana politicians is in stark contrast to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child’s outspoken opposition to this drop-off mechanism because anonymity denies the child knowledge of its identity.

Media coverage of the Indiana government’s first step to authorize baby boxes focuses primarily on the novelty of this proposed baby-rescue method. The last time an innovative safe haven law was implemented was in Nebraska, the last state to pass a law. No upper age limit was set, resulting in the relinquishment of teenagers — including a teen mother and her infant — by distressed guardians, many of whom traveled to Nebraska as a last resort and exposing a severe lack of adequate social services. How might Indiana’s baby boxes be used in unanticipated ways?

Other dimensions of safe haven advocacy are downplayed when baby boxes are trumpeted as an exciting advance. One is the underlying anti-abortion and pro-adoption views held by vocal safe haven advocates, including Kelsey. Further, the anonymity of the baby box drop-off conceals any understanding of the experiences of women and girls who are faced with a safe haven decision. Unwantedness is not the only or the main factor that leads to relinquishment.

Instead of debating the value of baby boxes, state governments should direct attention to the unequal social and economic support available to women and girls within our society. A reproductive justice analysis pushes us to critically question the safe haven assumption that a good mother relinquishes her newborn anonymously as an act of maternal love. It is our political and social responsibility to reveal and eliminate the social injustices that coerce some women and girls to relinquish the right to raise their newborns or to ever have future contact with them.

Laury Oaks is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Feminist Studies and an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Sociology and the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Giving Up Baby: Safe Haven Laws, Motherhood, and Reproductive Justice (NYU Press, 2015).

Feminist ire in all the wrong places

—Suzanna Danuta Walters

[This piece originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Vaginas keep causing trouble. The latest labial kerfuffle involves none other than the mother of all things “down there,” Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues. A few weeks ago, a student-theater group at Mount Holyoke College (full disclosure: my alma mater and the current home of my daughter) made a decision to discontinue production of the play and instead to do something more, as they wrote, “inclusive.” This quickly became a media firestorm, with Ensler herself arguing that “The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman. It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina.”

Had the students simply made a decision to produce other work and not gone out of their way to indict Ensler, one could imagine that this “controversy” would never have emerged in the first place. But the students’ statement referred to the work as “extremely narrow” and “inherently reductionist,” among other dismissive language. (Another disclosure: Ensler is a friend whose work and advocacy I have long admired.)

This is, of course, not the first time that feminists have directed their resentment at other feminists. Indeed, feminism, in both its theoretical and its practical applications, is well known for vicious infighting. As early as 1976, the pioneer activist Jo Freeman wrote about this phenomenon in an incendiary article in Ms. Magazine calling out “trashing” or, as she put it, the “dark side of sisterhood.” And when Ti-Grace Atkinson resigned from the radical feminist group The Feminists in the 60s, she wryly commented that “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.” Internecine battles have long been a staple of most vibrant social movements, particularly those with left-wing aspirations, because they are generally more open to democratic debate.

The instant world of the Internet—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the rest—has not only upped the ante but also accelerated the speed at which nominal disagreements get morphed into full-fledged “wars.” Contemporary punditry has weighed in on this, as in “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” in The Nation, and “The Incomplete Guide to Feminist Infighting,” in The Atlantic. And our broader media culture amplifies anything it might see as conflictual, so what gets retweeted is often that which is most easily slotted into a for-or-against model that does precious little to deepen the debate. This latest round of trashing comes at a time when (some version of) feminism has an increasingly public and popular face, and when feminist activism—around sexual assault and harassment, reproductive autonomy and sexual freedom—is witnessing a refreshing renaissance. In other words, we are at a critical moment, when the flourishing of feminism—both online and off—has a potential that should not be derailed by an endless circuit of self-destruction and misdirected ire.

This anger seems particularly targeted toward women in the public eye who explicitly define themselves as feminist and who espouse what certainly look like feminist beliefs, whether reproductive autonomy or freedom from sexual harassment. When the actor and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson gave a speech in September, calling for more male involvement in the struggle for gender equality, she fell prey to hyperventilating tirades accusing her of ignoring racial differences, asking men to protect women, and other sins of both omission and commission. Not long after, the anti-street-harassment campaign Hollaback! released a video depicting a day in the life of a woman whose walk though New York elicits endless undesired harassment by a stream of male bystanders. The video went viral, but so did immediate condemnation of it as exclusionary and even racist: The woman was white, and most of the harassers were men of color. Even the apology of the video’s producers did not derail the onslaught.

The wunderkind Lena Dunham was next in what has now become a long line of women—many of them young celebrities—to come under intense scrutiny in the vibrant feminist blogosphere. Dunham is no stranger to eliciting strong emotions; her hit HBO series, Girls, was roundly excoriated for its overly white and upper-class portrayal of a Brooklyn we know to be much more diverse. And her self-abnegating narcissism has rubbed many the wrong way. Her book, Not That Kind of Girl—part memoir, part self-help, part comedy sketch—has further amped up the Dunham wars, as she has now been accused of child sexual abuse in recalling and writing about what appears to be innocent childhood curiosity about the female body. In her book, she remembers looking into her sister’s vagina—when they were both young children—prompting the accusations of abuse and Dunham’s angry response (and that of her sister, who defends her by saying, in part, that “I’m committed to people … determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful”).

While moralists at large took the opportunity to deem Dunham an abuser, some feminists, too, jumped on this train, creating the hashtag #dropDunham and calling on Planned Parenthood to disengage from the star, who used her book tour in part as a way to support abortion rights. True, some prominent feminists, such as Roxane Gay and Katha Pollit, have eloquently come to her defense, but the blogosphere was fairly bursting with anti-Dunham fever. Gay, in particular, notes her discomfort with the scene (“I read the passage about Dunham inspecting her younger sister Grace’s vagina when she was seven and her sister was one. I found this disturbing and utterly bizarre”), but then goes on to say that she didn’t take particular note of it and, moreover, questions whether or not the disclosure is what is really animating the angst. Rather, she writes, “there is an undercurrent of rage that seems to have very little to do with the book, its disclosures or ‘the good fight,’ and everything to do with resenting a privileged young white woman succeeding.”

Let me be as clear as I can: This is—of course—not an argument against critical engagement. Criticism and challenge are vital to the health of any social movement, as they recalibrate priorities and assess goals and underlying values. As I write this, I am keenly aware of the ease with which some observers—such as Jonathan Chait in a recent piece for New York magazine—look at this infighting as evidence of PC-mad feminazis run amok. But the politically-correct-or-not framing is tired and illusory, undermining the substantive concerns at the heart of feminist discourse. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of feminist theory and the women’s movement more generally has been its insistence on self-scrutiny in the quest for ever more robust and inclusive analyses. And surely errors, miscues, and worse can be found in these and other examples.

Feminism has long struggled with its own suppositions and assumptions, from unacknowledged white privilege to presumptive heterosexuality to America-centric concerns. Calling these out remains a key ingredient in creating ever more salient and meaningful feminisms. What I am suggesting, however, is that this moment seems to have a skewed heat-to-light ratio.

When criticism becomes rote recitation of overdetermined keywords and loses what might be called an economy of scale, movements end up devouring their own and deflect attention from the larger and more pervasive problems they set out to challenge in the first place. Dunham and the Girls phenomenon might not be the feminist nirvana some hoped for, but she is a celebrity explicitly discussing her support for feminism and displaying an active commitment to (some) of the issues the movement cares about. The same could be said for Watson, Hollaback!, and Beyoncé (another feminist/sex-symbol Rorschach test); it bears noticing that recognizing the continuation of serious gender inequity and violence in a world many have blithely declared “postfeminist” is a position all should applaud. That doesn’t mean that any individual or organization should be above criticism; it does mean, however, that some perspective might be in order. It should matter, for example, that Ensler’s V-Day organization has raised more than $90-million, most of which goes to building feminist institutions like City of Joy, in Congo, or supporting grass-roots feminist organizations the world over.

There are real and potent enemies of women’s freedom out there in the world—those who want to sweep sexual violence under the rug, or do away with reproductive choice, or ignore wage differentials, or constrict sexual and gender freedom, or turn a blind eye to the lopsided gender representation in our halls of government. Perhaps those persistent problems seem too intractable, making the lure of the Twitter pile-on both easier and more satisfying in the face of our vexing inability to solve the larger problems. Easier perhaps to trash a Dunham or a Watson or an Ensler than to unseat an antichoice legislator or put a dent in the rates of sexual assault.

This could be, as they say, a “teachable moment” to parse the difference between, for example, discussions of “inclusion” and concerns about substantive bigotry and hateful representations. Isn’t there a way to stand in solidarity with all kinds of identities and communities without simultaneously declaring something else either “essentialist” or null and void in some way? To insinuate, for example, that The Vagina Monologues is a transphobic play is patently absurd—what precisely would be the evidence for that argument?

No doubt there is plenty of real transphobia out there to struggle against, some of it by the usual suspects and some of it authored by feminist theorists and activists, who should indeed be taken to task. But Ensler’s play is a poor target. And to mistake and conflate issues of inclusion for issues of discrimination is a dangerous and sloppy political error. It’s akin to calling the great epic Angels in America misogynist because it doesn’t include stories of women with AIDS.

Challenging one another and pushing at boundaries should never—must never—mean that we lose an economy of scale and create a topsy-turvy world where allies are enemies and borders are policed in ever narrower ways. When that happens, we let the real bigots off the hook and do a grave disservice to those activists and thinkers whose lives have been dedicated to human flourishing and gender and sexual freedom.

Suzanna Danuta Walters is editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Societyand a professor of sociology at Northeastern University, where she directs the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. She is the author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press, 2014).

Book giveaway: Plucked

“Most of Earth’s mammals possess luxuriant fur. Only one seeks to remove it. Rebecca Herzig’s delightful history of hair removal in America helps explain why: smooth skin is a cultural imperative.”
The Economist

Plucked is an important work, not least because it is so very readable. What’s more, Herzig is angry, and anger is the first step towards social change. ‘Plucked,’ she writes, ‘is, first and foremost, a call to remember those excluded others: the staggering volumes of sweat and blood and imagination and fear expended to produce a single hairless chin.'”
Times Higher Education 

To celebrate the stellar reviews rolling in for our forthcoming book, Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, we are giving away a free copy to two lucky winners!

In Plucked, historian Rebecca Herzig explores the long history of hair removal around the world, examining how Americans came to perceive body hair as a sign of political extremism, sexual deviance, or mental illness. Moving beyond the experiences of particular patients or clients, Herzig describes the surprising histories of race, science, industry, and medicine behind today’s hair-removing tools.

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred e-mail address. We will randomly select our winners on Monday, March 2nd, 2015 at 1:00 pm EST.

The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Q&A with author Rachel C. Lee

Last season, Faye Qiyu Lu, one of our fall interns and an undergraduate at NYU, put together a series of questions for Rachel C. Lee, author of The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America. Check out the Q&A on the book below! 

What does the term “exquisite corpse” entail for your project?

Rachel C. Lee: The exquisite corpse, for me, is a structure for collaboration, an experimental method that values distributed sites of intelligence, despite the likely disjunctures of approach and worldview of various participants. In the early 2000s, I began working with a group of feminists in Los Angeles to create a critical-creative prose piece using the cadavre exquis as our model. That exercise led me to appreciate the conjunctive elements of scholarly endeavor, rather than simply to pretend that, for instance, a book emanates from a singular monastic researcher. At the same time, I had also been writing about performances, novels, science exhibits, and other cultural artifacts. All were concerned with racially marked populations and some used “body parts” in their compositions, for instance, wielding human detritus as art material or referring to fleshly organs in their titles. I discovered that these Asian American artists were not simply responding to how racial violence occurs through the assertion of anatomical difference between “colored” and “white” people—differences not simply in hair texture and skin color, but in diet, endurance, pain threshold, and so forth—they were also responding to the way in which biotechnology was changing Enlightenment notions about the integrity and autonomy of the human organism.

André Breton credited games like the cadavre exquis with bringing about something unexpected—a “pooling” of creativity and knowledge, perhaps an early intimation of what is now called “crowd sourcing.” That description seemed an apt figure, encapsulating the way my book had grown from an engagement with racial profiling tied to external features and body parts to an examination of such profiling in relation to risk assessments of populations based on genetic, metabolic, endocrinological, and environmental regulation.

It is argued in the book that a biosocial/biopolitical perspective would shed new light on the literary study of race (Asian American in this case). How did you first arrive at this approach?

The literature on biopolitics and biosociality—which I became familiar with through anthropologies and sociologies of medicine—helped me understand the gap between those who were studying embodiment on the scale of perception and corporeal dynamics and those who were studying it more sociologically, as properties and propensities of bodies aggregated into types. We can think of these as an approach that starts from inside a particular, situated body and an approach that starts from outside, looking over a crowd of bodies. As I explain in the first chapter of my book, literary artifacts often focalize their stories through the perspectives of individual protagonists.

In the case of canonical literature by racial subjects, readers who take up these books vicariously see from the viewpoint of these racially specific characters, taking on their speech inflections, and understanding or sympathizing with the traps of these characters’ own and others’ making. This approach corresponds to the anatomical-political register of biopower—how individual bodies feel the effects of (and partially defy) the managerial, biopolitical aspects of biopower codified in institutions such as the the legislature, the courts, the health clinic, the army, the Taylorized workplace, the credit and finance sector, and so forth. Public policy and the law necessarily address social problems–such as harm caused by institutional bias against racial others, the disabled, and sexual minorities, for instance–in terms of broad edicts aimed at ensuring classes of individuals are not singled out for unfair treatment. In other words, legal and policy discourses necessarily “abstract” individuals into populational patterns, but who wouldn’t feel that his/her individual instance of tragicomedy has not been heard in the broad edicts of these bureacracies? It is the desire to be in a particular body, or the riveting concreteness of a particular body’s story, that finds us looking to literature.

Apparently your study examines not only literature, but also various art forms. Is it pushing your own boundaries as a literary scholar?

Since the completion of my first book in 1999, I had been working on the difference between scripts treated as literary texts and live performances on the stage. Indeed, in my earlier work on standup comedienne Margaret Cho, the archived ‘text’ of a live performance was not a written transcript but a DVD. When working on performance, one pays attention not simply to the verbal emanations of the performer, but to the communicative and tonal qualities of gesticulating arms, crouched legs, pointed toes, sweat streaks, facial grimaces, costume, etc. I suppose you could say that I spent the first decade of the 2000s pushing my boundaries as a transdisciplinary scholar, not simply in terms of taking stage performances as part of my archive but also in my consideration of visual media and other forms of visual-tactile interfaces enabled by electronic platforms. Perhaps the biggest boundary I have recently pushed is that between bioscientific and humanistic approaches. However, here I am grateful to be following in the footsteps of brilliant feminist science and technology scholars such as Donna Haraway, Banu Subramaniam, Hannah Landecker, and Elizabeth Wilson.

Why did you choose the specific cases of Cheng-Chieh Yu’s dance theater, Margaret Cho’s stand-up comedy, Amitav Ghosh’s novel, and Denise Uyehara’s performance art?

The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America is also an experiment in various modes of critical writing. My introduction, first chapter, final chapter, and epilogue are all driven by argument and theory. There, I use examples from literature, scientific exhibit, clinical practice, and visual design and art in aggregate, as it were— meaning their force of evidence lies in the sum of their effect. In four chapters on the artists identified above, I ruminate at length on each artist’s corpus, dwelling in the minutiae of their choreographies, multi-media art practices, narrative structures, and pedagogical commitments. The goal is to draw out what ethical and political practices they accomplish—and urge us to accomplish—through their work. There are numerous ways in which the works of the four primary artists overlap and could be explored, but I didn’t want the length of the book to be too forbidding. For instance, while I expressly explore the boundaries among species—microorganisms and their insect and vertebrate hosts—through Amitav Ghosh’s fiction, I could also have turned to dancer Cheng-Chieh Yu, who has a series of dance performances devoted to the animal-human divide; these dances convey a sense that the movements of Chinese martial arts and the pharmacopeia of Chinese medicine acknowledge the continuity of humans and other animals. Similarly, both Margaret Cho and Denise Uyehara (both queer actresses) have recently turned to the topic of having babies; nonetheless, I felt Uyehara’s earlier work on disability and incarceration was far more pressing to address.

Lastly, you mentioned the hope to “provoke a new symbiont species of inquiry.” Would you consider The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America successful at doing so?

Immodestly, I’d love to say yes, but future readers will have to answer that question! Perhaps the best I can do is point to how biotechnology on a daily basis is disaggregating and reaggregating our body parts in ever new ways. Biotechnology now allows for something called the “three-parent embryo,” basically the altering of one’s offspring’s cellular materials, such as mitochondria, while maintaining that offspring’s genetic (nuclear DNA) tie to the parent. While the three-parent embryo is not a new species (all the parts combining are from one species), it nevertheless might do as a figure that is good to think with in our current moment. Such new combinations in and across bodies are coming into being because of well-funded infrastructures enabling their realization. My book aspires to be a more modest infrastructure, enabling analogous new inquisatorial combinations across bodies of disciplinary inquiry.

We might also take a cue from artists, poets, novelists, and standup comedians themselves, who are not leaving the social and ethical implications of these new technologies up to the biotech industry, but are speculating and imagining multiple futures emerging from these changes. Asian American Studies, race studies, literary studies, and American Studies, whether in a symbiont or three-parent embryo manner, would do well to amplify their engagements with bioscience in order to continue the work of critical race studies, social justice, and ethical pedagogy in relation to these developments.

Rachel C. Lee is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at UCLA. She is the author of The Americas of Asian American Literature: Gendered Fictions of Nation and Transnation, co-editor of the volume Asian America.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace, and editor of the Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature and Culture.

Dancing Tango: Q&A with author Kathy Davis

Argentinean tango is a global phenomenon. Since its origin, it has crossed and re-crossed many borders. Yet, never before has tango been danced by so many people and in so many different places as today. In her new book, Dancing Tango, Kathy Davis shows why a dance from another era and another place appeals to men and women from different parts of the world. 

In the Q&A below, Davis gives us a glimpse into the world of tango dancing, and the hierarchies of gender, sexuality, and global relations of power in which Argentinean tango is—and has always been—embroiled.

Q: When did you first become passionate about tango and why?

Kathy Davis: My first encounter with Argentinian tango was in Amsterdam many years ago when I wandered—quite by chance—into a place called a “tango salon.”  I had no idea what this was, but was curious enough to go in and take a look. What I saw there, were men and women of different ages and lifestyles, dancing in a close embrace to music from another era. Aside from wondering why on earth people would want to dance to such old-fashioned music, I was intrigued by women dancing with their eyes closed and an expression of utter rapture on their faces. I still clearly remember thinking, ‘Wow, if I only could know how that feels!’ It wasn’t until many years later that I decided to learn to dance tango myself but, once I started, I never looked back.

Your research is based in both Amsterdam and Buenos Aires. How are their social contexts different for tango?

Buenos Aires is where tango originated and where it has a long tradition. Although most Argentinians do not actually dance tango, everyone is familiar with the music and considers tango as a treasure that Argentina has given to the world. Today, there is a vibrant dance community in Buenos Aires, with dozens of different venues each night where locals and tango lovers from across the globe meet to share their passion for the dance. In Amsterdam, there are only a few tango salons. They tend to be much smaller, but are otherwise pretty much the same as the salons in Buenos Aires: the music, the style of dancing, and the rules about how to behave on the dance floor are almost identical.

However, there are important differences, the most noticeable having to do with gender. In Buenos Aires, it is a tradition that men and women sit separately, invitations to dance occur by making eye contact and a subtle kind of mutual nodding called cabaceo, and men escort women to and from their tables before and after a dance set. Men and women cultivate gender differences in both in their appearance and their (often openly flirtatious) behavior. In Amsterdam, ‘sex-segregation’ in a salon would be regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned. Women resent having to wait to be asked to dance and many even have problems being led by their male partners during a dance. Unlike dancers in Buenos Aires who seem comfortable playing with gender differences, tango dancers in Amsterdam tend to be uneasy with their tango personas when they seem to be at odds with their identities as ‘emancipated,’ late modern individuals.

How do you look at the interplay between “passionate encounter” and “differences” during tango dancing?

The passionate encounter that tango can produce involves two people entering a space which feels totally intimate: you breathe together, you feel each other’s heart beating, you ‘know’ what the other person feels and wants without having to say a word. While you can dance with your lover, your spouse, or someone you know or care about, many dancers admit that this is not how they want to dance or, at least, not all the time. In fact, there is something particularly exciting about entering the intimate space of a tango with someone you don’t know or couldn’t even imagine having to deal with in your everyday life. Actually, you can often see unlikely combinations of dance partners on the dance floor: dancers of different generations, ethnicities and social classes, or walks of life, locked in a close embrace that, in their ordinary lives, would be unimaginable.

Why might tango and post-colonial feminist theories be at odds with each other?

It’s pretty obvious why tango might be at odds with feminism. Tango is almost synonymous with feminine subservience and masculine machismo. What feminist worth her salt would advocate that? Just imagine a feminist dancing tango and submitting herself to the gendered hierarchies of men inviting and women waiting to be invited, men leading and women following, not to mention the hyper-heterosexual power-games of seduction which are part and parcel of what goes on in a tango-salon. From a postcolonial feminist perspective, dancing tango is even more problematic because it not only reproduces asymmetrical relations between the sexes, it draws upon and exacerbates socio-cultural and -economic divisions between the global North and South. For example, some Argentineans feel forced – often for economic reasons – to offer themselves up as raw material for the desires and fantasies of Europeans and North Americans longing for sexy Latinos who they believe to be ‘closer to their bodies,’ more ‘natural,’ or more in tune with their ‘primitive desires.’ For anyone who is even slightly aware of the role which exoticism has historically played in imperialism and colonialism, a passion for tango cannot be considered simply as a harmless and innocent pastime.

What is your take on reconciling this conflict?

I actually don’t think this conflict can be reconciled, but rather needs to be analyzed in a more grounded fashion. The postcolonial feminist critique of tango is important because it places the dance and the global dance culture it has spawned in a broader geopolitical context. However, as it is the case with any critique that is primarily top-down, the postcolonial critique does not do justice to the experiences of men and women who actually dance tango, both inside and outside Buenos Aires. Nor does it take into account how tango dancers from different locations actually negotiate and manage the contradictions they encounter through their desire to dance with one another. I think we need to pay much more attention to tango as a transnational cultural space that allows a passionate encounter, full of both possibilities and problems, across many different kinds of borders.

Any thoughts on dancing tango in the United States?

Tango is, of course, not only danced in Buenos Aires and Amsterdam. As a global dance, it has produced avid dance communities all over the world, including in most cities in the US. While most of these communities take on many of the features associated with tango dancing in Buenos Aires, US tango communities have their own specific features, depending on the place and the people who attend the tango salons. For example, in New York, where there are many immigrants from different parts of South America, the dance community is much more ethnically diverse than, say, in Cleveland or Milwaukee. And, unsurprisingly, San Francisco, with its vibrant LGBT community, has become internationally famous as a center for queer tango.

Kathy Davis is Senior Research Fellow in the Sociology Department of the VU University in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. She is the author of Dancing Tango: Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World (NYU Press, 2015).

Fashioning Fat: Q&A with author Amanda Czerniawski

For over two years, sociologist Amanda M. Czerniawski went undercover as a plus-size model to gain insight on how women navigate this sector of the fashion industry—and the impact plus-size models can have on our constructions of beauty. The result is her new book, Fashioning Fat, forthcoming this month from NYU Press. She spoke recently about the intense pressures plus-size models face and how it feels to be “just a body.” 

Q: What struck you most when you began your research as an academic entering the fashion world?

Amanda M. Czerniawski: Initially, I thought I had an advantage due to my past experience in the entertainment industry. As a child actor, I entered an audition room with a blazing personality, showing wit and a high social aptitude through conversational banter. So, for my first modeling open call at an agency, I prepared to wow the agent with my purposefully peppy personality. I never got the chance. Before I could even offer simple words of introduction, she told me that she was not interested in representing me. The agent evaluated my potential to model based only on a snapshot, without a word exchanged. I was caught off guard by the impersonal nature of this interaction, as well as the immediate evaluation performed by the agent. With one glance at me, and my pictures, she was done. That was my first glimpse at what it felt to be “just a body.”

As an academic, you would think that I would have learned from this exchange and adjusted my expectations at subsequent calls and castings. Nope. I still waited for my chance to dazzle the next agent with my way with words. At that next opportunity, it happened again (but with different results).

Ultimately, I learned (the hard way) that while acting and modeling are alike in terms of the need to transform yourself into a character for the camera, different skills are used to achieve this goal. In acting, I used my body and voice. In modeling, I was voiceless. You can imagine how difficult this could be for an academic.

How is the concept of being “fat” in the model industry different from our everyday experience?

Fashion often has strict and often extreme bodily standards. For example, in 2009, designer label Ralph Lauren fired model Filippa Hamilton for being too fat. At the time, Hamilton wore a woman’s size four. While the casual observer viewed her as thin, a fashion professional argued that she was fat. This case and others reveal the range of meanings associated with “fat” in fashion. Many of today’s plus-size models do not conform to typical cultural representations of fat. They are “average” to the ordinary consumer, but, in sharp contrast, they are “plus size” to the fashion industry.

For what reasons do women become plus-sized models?

I found that there are four types of plus-size models: the former straight-size model, the performer, the outsider, and the self-promoter. In the first type, a traditional, straight-size model turns to plus-size modeling after failing to maintain a thin physique. In the second, an actor or singer happens to book a modeling job and then continues with it. In the third, a woman, without prior knowledge or interest, is encouraged to model by someone connected to the fashion industry and is then intrigued (and flattered) enough to try it out. In the fourth, a woman tries her luck at modeling without the aid of a network connection. The majority of the models were of the third type.

For many of the women, modeling was thought to be an unattainable dream. Many never imagined that they could work as models because of their culturally maligned bodies. Given the normative expectation of fashion models as young, tall, and thin, it is no wonder that these women had trouble envisioning a place for themselves in fashion. For these women, modeling became a journey of personal growth where they overcame their body issues. Once they discovered plus-size modeling, they began to see their bodies in a different light, often embracing the mantle of spokesmodel for body acceptance.

While sometimes praised as brave heroines, plus-sized models often face the challenge of marginalization and fetishization. How do they cope with this paradox?

Often the images of plus-size models fetishize the fat body or they are relegated to a special “curvy” issue as a sales marketing feature. For example, a top plus-size model, Crystal Renn, was the subject in an editorial spread by photographer Terry Richardson for Vogue Paris in 2010. The series of images depict Crystal feasting away at platters full of bloody meats, squid, chicken, piles of spaghetti, an abundance of grapes, and a massive wedge of cheese. I also spoke to models who admitted to appearing in weight-loss ads as the “before” image or modeled maternity wear when not pregnant. These kinds of jobs can be taxing on a model’s psyche. Unfortunately, they do not have the power to set the parameters of their work, so if they want to continue to work, they often submit themselves to these unflattering roles and hope for better jobs in the future. 

Besides criticizing the impossible ideal body type created in media, your book also mentions the image manipulation of “plus-sized” women as a marketing strategy. Are you suggesting a problem more complicated than skinny or fat here?

Studies suggest that an increased presence of plus-size models (i.e., larger bodies) in fashion may alleviate the trend of bodily dissatisfaction; however, these plus-size models are not average women. So, the mere presence of these models in the media landscape should not be our only focus and, in fact, may contribute to the persistence of bodily dissatisfaction. Let me explain.

While a plus-size model is, arguably, closer in size to the average woman, her body is still atypical in terms of symmetrical facial features and proportional frame. A fashion expert chose her because she was a standout among the crowd. Then, as a fashion model, she is a blank canvas. A slew of aesthetic professionals—her agent, photographers, stylists, makeup artists, and hair professionals—work on her. On top of that, photographers and image editors manipulate the photos either by airbrushing or photoshopping, a practice exposed in Dove’s Evolution commercial.

The final product that appears in print or the Internet is, ultimately, a carefully constructed fantastical image, i.e., an illusion. These images reveal a fun, flirty, and fashionable woman but hide the active work done by and on the plus-size model. Plus-size models engage in, at times, severe bodily management practices, such as strict calorie restriction to drop a size and even binge eating to gain a size, as well as more routine bodily manipulations, such as applying make-up and hair products, wearing shapewear, and adding body padding to make the body frame more proportional. Which is why, after all this work is done (behind the scenes and hidden from the consumer), a woman may look at this image of a plus-size model and think, “We’re the same size. Why don’t I look half as good as her?” This observer may then continue to experience discontentment with her body because she still does not measure up to fashion’s standards for larger bodies. 

What is the most important message in Fashioning Fat for readers?

Plus-size models aim to expand the notion of beauty beyond a size six, but that does not eliminate the engendered problem of disembodiment because these women, no matter their size, are simply bodies. Fashion still judges these women on the basis of their looks. Modeling reduces them to curves and numbers on a tape measure. They are not women but breasts, bums, and hips. After all their intensive aesthetic labor, plus-size models are still objectified, sexualized, and, yes, disembodied.

Amanda M. Czerniawski is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Temple University.

American dream: Cuba and credit cards

—Nancy Stout

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that what I heard most clearly in President Obama’s recent speech on U.S. normalization of relations with Cuba were his reassuring words that the American people will soon be able to use credit cards on the island. Try to live, do research, or simply travel without the gracious backup of a piece of plastic, as I have done. I can promise you, it is very hard.

My first trips to Cuba, during the post-Soviet economic hardship of the early 1990s, happily corresponded with the popularity of the Wonder-bra—beautifully shaped with all the enhancements of under-wiring and petal-shaped pockets for push-up padding. There, I’d put rolls of $50 bills to finance my sometimes extended stays in Havana. Later, I got my translator to keep some of my cash, which she placed in a book in her library, usually.

Once, I spent nearly seven months in Havana, in 2000, when the Cuban government suddenly allowed me access to their archives to research the life of Celia Sánchez [a major leader of the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s closest companion]. As banks and ATMs in Cuba were useless for Americans, at one point I flew to Mexico City in order to go withdraw more money. I lost lots of it in the required conversion of dollars to Mexican pesos, and lost even more changing those pesos into Cuban pesos. Recently, I’ve been making shorter trips and paying in advance for a hotel room through a Canadian travel agency—again, all on account of the embargo.

I’ve made nineteen trips to the island and none easily because of the money factor. Manageable, yes, but there was never the complete ease of saying to your friends one night (except on the eve of a departure), “Let me pick up the tab.” Every year or so there were predictions that things between our governments were going to change, but I had learned to be skeptical. And, I don’t think I’ll throw away my Wonder-bra just yet.

Nancy Stout is the author of One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 2013).

Related content

 

C-sections and vaginal births: Not the same thing

—Theresa Morris

On December 15, Kim Simon posted a piece on Huffington Post entitled, “10 Ways C-Sections and Vaginal Births Are Exactly the Same.” I saw this posted on Facebook and many people seemed to applaud it, but I have to say I am disturbed by it, especially the title. Simon’s argument boils down to the assertion that women shame each other over birth and fail to embrace the notion that birth, regardless of how it is accomplished, leads to motherhood. Who can argue with that message?

I will, because equating C-sections and vaginal births is problematic. I have conducted research on the high U.S. C-section rate in the U.S., and I can say unequivocally that giving birth by C-section and giving birth vaginally are not the same for babies or for moms.

The 2013 C-section rate of 32.7 percent is over double the World Health Organization’s maximum recommended rate of 10-15 percent. Women are 3.5 times more likely to die in a C-section than in a vaginal birth. This helps to explain why a World Health Organization report finds that the U.S. maternal mortality rate has been increasing since 1995 such that now the proportion of deaths among women of reproductive age that are due to maternal causes has more than doubled since 1995. There is no doubt that C-sections contribute to this trend and that women are unnecessarily dying. If this is not the canary in the coalmine indicating our current birth practices in the U.S. are harming women, I don’t know what is. I agree with Simon that women are shamed for how they give birth and they shouldn’t be, but making that a central issue draws our attention away from the structural causes of the high U.S. C-section rate and perpetuates the notion that women are the problem.

Simon’s third point in the blog, “You’re in charge,” really shows the illusion of the blog’s argument. Women are most certainly not in charge, although I agree that woman should be. Doctors and nurses are bound by strict protocols that determine how women will be treated. Can women eat during labor? Probably not, because a nurse will only give her ice chips and clear fluids. Can she walk around during labor? Maybe—that depends on whether she has an epidural (most women do), whether the nurse insists on continuous electronic fetal monitoring (most nurses do), and whether the hospital has a functioning telemetry unit to remotely monitor the fetal heart (many hospitals do not). In other words, women are not in control, even if we agree that they should be.

This point is drawn home with two telling examples, both of which indicate how many women are not in charge of their births. First, 91 percent of women in the U.S. who give birth following a C-section have a repeat C-section, even though as many as half would like to have a vaginal birth. Why? This happens because hospitals and providers deny women a chance to have a vaginal birth and condemn them to another C-section. The risks of C-sections accumulate with each additional C-section, including the risks of secondary infertility, hemorrhage, and an unplanned hysterectomy. Second, some women are forced to have C-sections—read about the recent case of Rinat Dray. This can even approach a legal mandate. When women refuse a doctor’s recommendation to have a C-section, doctors sometimes bring in lawyers and judges, and women are court ordered to have C-sections. For an example, watch Laura Pemberton talk about her experience. These women were not in charge of their births.

In short, C-sections and vaginal birth are vastly more different than they are the same. No, women should not be shamed about their births, but focusing on this as the most important issue around birth draws our attention away from the harm of a high C-section rate and how many women do not have a choice in the matter.

Theresa Morris is Professor of Sociology at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Cut It Out: The C-Section Epidemic in America. She is the mother of two children, the first born by c-section and the second by vaginal delivery.