The Visual Essay: Process & Realization

Here begins an experimental project, a challenge with visual discourse. This is my first visual essay.

I decided to use the visual essay assignment as a way to create a dialogue about how our bodies are socially disciplined. Once I began filming, I realized the difficulty of beginning the conversation. Even though I set out to talk about my own body, and even though my body is something that has been a part of me for as long as I can remember, I couldn’t broach the subject with comfort.

The desire to create a space for bodily discussion began with the commentary I received about own stomach. Within the past six months, I began hearing the phrase, “Are you pregnant?” over and over again. It started to feel like the repetitious questioning was more than a coincidence.

The multiple readings of the statement, “Are you pregnant?” are what lead me into this project. What was most transformative about this process was the discussion that formed around the topic of what we feel about our own bodies. I spoke to friends and colleagues, to my parents and my sisters. These conversation were bravely honest and they served as the foundation for the video; these voices were the root of the project, sturdy and ever-present.

As I began creating the visual outline for the project, I planned on enacting a feminist methodology. While shooting, this was constantly in the back of my mind. When I arrived at the final question in the video, “What do you want people to take away from this project?” I found myself in a strange place of conflict. I wanted people to begin discussing their bodies in an honest way, in hopes of undoing the sedimented ideologies of dominant culture; however, I had not been honest about my own feelings about my stomach in the video. I decided to speak frankly.

The first thing I realized was that I loved my stomach. I also realized that that very bodily piece was also a source of displeasure. At first, the admission was embarrassing and I was afraid that by including the confession in the video, I would be undermining my feminist project.

Subsequently, this is what I realized. It is okay to possess multiple, competing gazes. As a feminist, I am still constructed within a hegemonic framework, one which privileges a very narrow definition of bodily beauty. I hope that by acknowledging this construction, the honest reactions I have about my own body, I can begin the process of understanding why I am so impacted by ideological frameworks that dictate one limited way of being.

My hope is that this video will serve as an entry point into self-examination. Beginning with the personal and corporeal, that which we carry with us, I would like to begin the simple, but transformative act, of speaking and investigating.

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9 Responses to The Visual Essay: Process & Realization

  1. Amazing video, I’m so proud of you!!

  2. marina says:

    Shayda,

    Great video. I love the stomach-showing. It is somewhat cathartic to see another woman’s stomach that looks like mine; it is a powerful image, especially as it is loaded with the complicated emotions/ideas surrounding it: anger, insecurity, reclamation, confusion, contradiction.

    I liked how your conversation discussed the complicated feelings and the reason for the self-examination; your words said you don’t like your stomach and the image of your stomach said you own it. Intersplicing it between conversation also visually reminds us why you are exploring the idea of body image and creates a visibility/representation of a woman’s bare stomach which is not shown in women’s magazines, television, or film, etc.

    The only time that stomach fat, butt cellulite, love handles, etc. are shown in the media are in advertisements for weight loss and other products that are supposed to “perfect” women’s natural bodies. Seeing stretch marks, cellulite, and stomach fat that looks like mine in the media being portrayed as something that needs to be removed is a disheartening and depressing thing, even as a socially conscious feminist.

    Getting back to your video, it sparks a lot of thoughts and feelings, and I appreciate the thought-process and contradiction of the reclamation/shame. Your hesitation to admit to disliking your stomach (at least in relation to your other body parts) reminds me of the Thomas Waugh discussion we had in class about pressure to promote positive ideas. As if being feminist means you have to only promote the “love your body” mantra without admitting that you are affected by the larger messages in society.

    I think you and your stomach are beautiful. Thank you for this video and always reminding us that while no body can fit the “ideal,” all bodies should be taken seriously.

  3. Caroline says:

    If someone as wise and strong and courageous and beautiful as you can be brought so low by the conflicting feelings about your body that society engenders, how much more affected must others be? Your own feelings describe and affirm the importance of your project.

    I’ve been focused on losing weight for the sake of my health. I’m enjoying being able to run up the stairs in my house without feeling like I’m having a heart attack at the top, but your video really brought home to me that it’s not just my physical health that I’m working on, it’s my emotional health too.

  4. Gail Taylor says:

    Shayda ~

    Your project: “Bodily Discourses – A Re-Reading” presents a challenge to the popular, Western corporatist concept of female beauty. Particularly insightful is your willingness to reveal your belly and to show us how you adorned this part of your body with words and symbols in order to disengage with the colonizing project that the mainstream media produces in an effort to exploit the insecurities some women have about their bodies.

    Your video also opened up a space for me to consider representations of the belly outside the context of the popular, Western corporatist concept of female beauty.

    Bodily readings are filtered through perception. Perceptions vary from context to context, culture to culture. A belly, particularly a female belly, may be the signifier of fecundity or deprivation, depending on culture, context, and society.

    For example, within the context of a social environment where nourishing food is scarce, or for some reason withheld, a round belly can be read as distended, bloated, and therefore indicative of malnourishment.

    Within the context of fitness training, a “soft” belly may indicate the absence of muscle tone, not necessarily the presence of fat.

    Within a social context where the bearing of children has been politicized, perhaps even forced upon women, or, conversely, strictly prevented, a round belly can be read as pregnancy, or as a sign that the woman is menstruating, with the presumption that she is fertile and presumably healthy, or at least capable of bearing the physical strain of carrying a child to term.

    Your video calls forth many questions regarding the way women conceptualize quality-of-life issues and, additionally, perceptions of their self-worth. The question you raise about what your belly signifies is a powerful one. Ultimately, the question reflects the state of mind of the one who asks you the question.

    I would be interested in learning more about why the question, “Are you pregnant?” is read as an attempt to co-opt your body into the role of a “breeder,” as you say.

    Thus, I offer an alternative reading of the question. Depending on who is asking the question (and their own relationship to their body; (and if they are a woman, to their fertility [ital.])), it may also be true that there might be a wish located at the root of their question. Thus, “Are you pregnant?” might be indicative of a natural proclivity to associate birth with the affective feeling of optimism in the sense that birth is often symbolically and literally indicative of life and the potential for new beginnings.

    As Simone de Beauvoir indicates in, The Second Sex, biology is not destiny. We women are free to create and re-create our own beginnings, regardless of our fertility status. Yet, the challenges to our freedom are also real. Our choice may be to transcend these challenges, overcome them, or invent a new way of being in the world.

    This new way of being in the world may start from a place of introspection facilitated by technology, as you have brilliantly demonstrated to us in your video.

    In closing, I cannot help but wonder what is at stake when we turn the gaze upon ourselves? I am a woman empowered. I look, I see, I wonder!

    In the spirit of wonder, I ask you, where is the gaze that is fixed upon your belly located?

    Best wishes,

    Gail

    10.07.10
    Pasadena

  5. Hi Shayda,

    I have a long history of being asked if I’m pregnant. The owner of Full of Life in the Claremont village told me I couldn’t use the restaurant’s bathroom because I wouldn’t fit–because I’m pregnant (she thought). People have touched my belly and congratulated me. Basically, the interaction is never un-awkward, but I embrace the situation at least in one way: I totally buy maternity clothes if they flatter and fit me better than “straight” sizes. Why not?

    I also have some links for you. An NYT blog post, “Pregnant or Fat?” The comments are really rich. http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/10/pregnant-or-fat/

    And an LA times article from my birthday a couple years ago. “Mother of All Gaffes” is an installment in a social etiquette column: How to respond if someone asks if you’re pregnant, and should you ever ask if a woman is pregnant? http://articles.latimes.com/2008/feb/24/image/ig-mannerist24

    Nice work, Shayda!

    Katie

  6. MP:me says:

    Shayda: It’s wonderful to see the intelligent and caring responses of your community above and beyond our class; I learned a lot from their thoughts! This is an effective piece because you so courageously personalize a political issue, allowing always to keep both in our sights. You also create the double frame of the male gaze and voice, and the female, and the dance of self love/hate, self awareness/denial, and I know but even so… these are the many binaries that are stitched almost effortlessly but still visibly in the piece.

  7. sabbiaovale says:

    I really enjoyed your video; it was so brave, honest and inspiring. The courage to discuss your physical issues and being seen as pregnant/“breeder” by women is something I never considered. I appreciate the authenticity of the way in which your video was filmed, leaving the “blooper” at the beginning in your final product.

  8. John says:

    Shayda,
    Your bravery and honesty are what made this video, for me, truly work. You took on some major issues regarding the body: what we don’t as a whole, what we want to change if we could and how social rhetoric penetrates our bodies and more importantly how we then feel about them.

    You video was powerful because your voice was courageous and willing to talk about these issues. By turning the camera back upon us, you ask: “What do WE want to talk about in regards to OUR bodies?” You opened up the conversation to come not from a placed a shame or being scared but to a conversation where honesty, safety, and community are more important.

    Needless to say, I LOVED your video and I cannot wait to work with your further!

  9. debbie says:

    Hello! I wanted to congratulate you once again for your work. To echo Marina’s comment, I’m glad you showed us your stomach. In this patriarchal society, women’s stomachs and wombs are the sites of incredibly political controversy. Sometimes, I also feel my stomach is inadequate because it’s not absolutely toned. This feeling is produced by social conditioning (billions of dollars of advertising, billboards, magazines, t.v. programming, and more) by corporations that want women to buy more stuff. In addition, our self-dislike is implanted in us by our social networks and institutions. I grew up with my mother, brother, and father all touting me and monitoring my weight, therefore I internalized this self policing, vacillating between problems with bulimia and anorexia. Finally, I realized I was being tricked and I was sick of it. I stopped trying to diet and exercise and starve for an unattainable beauty standard and started eating healthier, etc. because I began to love my personhood in my body. This took years of course, but your video helps me re-examine my own experiences more honestly. Thanks!

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