Beware, the Wrinkle

The central antagonist of Snow White and the Huntsman is not Snow White’s stepmother, the Dark Forest, the queen’s dark army, or the huntsman wielding an axe. It is the wrinkle, the threat of aging.

Indeed, this fairy tale has multiple points of resonance with our current, aggressive beauty culture. Revanna, Snow White’s stepmother, fears the wrinkle. Seen as the ultimate point of abjection, Revanna goes through extreme lengths to remain young (as a child her mother cast a spell on her to keep her beautiful, a spell of protection). When her youthful beauty wanes, Revanna drinks the life of younger women in her kingdom, essentially robbing them of their youth and beauty. Her desire to kill Snow White and eat her heart rests in Revanna’s desire for immortality: the constant presence of beauty.

Our current beauty culture casts a similar spell of desire on women. We are bombarded with advertisements of anti-aging products in magazines, on television, and on the internet. Promising to eradicate fine lines and wrinkles, wrinkles are posited as the antithesis to beauty, a creeping presence to fear wholeheartedly.

In the movie, Revanna is empowered by her beauty. This is not very different than the beliefs of dominant culture. The act of remaining young, engaging in cosmetic surgery and receiving Botox injections, increases one’s status. In a word, one’s power. Given this, the wrinkle and the act of aging function to undermine the social construction of beauty as power. Women (and more recently, men) must remain vigilant in their battle for taut skin.

Revanna’s battle is unrelenting and while I sat in the dark of the movie theater, my mind too became occupied with ways to eradicate the wrinkle. Even though I am a woman who does not cringe that the thought of getting creases and lines, I began asking myself: when is the appropriate age to start using wrinkle creams? Have I started getting wrinkles? Because of our current culture of photoshop, the desire to be as perfect as possible, I began connecting with a character I was supposed to despise.

I do not remember the hyper-focus on aging in the original Snow White fairy tale. Yes, the queen wanted to be the “fairest,” but I do not remember the added almost paranoid skin-gazing in the mirror, the pulling on her slightly loose skin, the thick baths of milk.

How perversely fitting that a 21st century rendition of the Snow White fairytale adopts a compulsive desire for bodily perfection.

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Anti-Smoking PSAs Are Anti-Disability

I have read the latest series of anti-smoking Public Service Announcements (PSA) from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from a disability theory lens, particularly because of the ways the PSAs featured the individuals. Entitled, “Tips from Former Smokers,” the series focuses on several former smokers who share “tips” on how to negotiate life with a breathing stoma or a laryngectomy stoma:

The people depicted in this PSA describe how they need to alter their lives as a result of the stoma: not facing the shower, suctioning out the tube before eating, and not bending down. The commercial ends with the sentence, “Smoking causes immediate damage to your body.” While this is a very powerful commercial in the ways it addresses the damage that smoking can cause, coming from a disability theory perspective, the ways the commercial treats these three individuals is problematic.

This PSA presents the disabled body as abject, as monstrous.

The PSA about smoking and Buerger’s Disease focuses on the incompleteness of the body, the lack, and disease of the body. These individuals are depicted as fractured rather than as whole subjects. This is perhaps the most toxic effect of ableism: the individual with a disability is no longer seen as a complete person. They are objects, things to be displayed. The elements of spectacle and freakery in these PSAs are uncanny. The disabled body is shown as an embodiment to avoid.

In this way, the PSAs stress what not to do–smoking–by stressing the terror associated with bodily difference: the body with missing limbs, the bald body, the body with missing teeth, and the scarred body are all signs of what to fear. The following PSA demonstrates this most clearly:

Not only do these PSAs present the disabled body in its difference as a source of terror, but they create a clear dichotomy between the able and disabled body. These PSAs are contrasted with another from the same series that shows images of people who have quit smoking. The “Cessation” PSA depicts active, able bodied individuals, people who create a stark contrast to the individuals in the other PSAs in the series:

While I certainly do not believe that smoking is good for the body and that we must raise awareness about quitting smoking, I do believe that the ways we disseminate this information needs to be done strategically and not at the cost of people with disabilities.

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Where Are the Curves?

There are several problems with Levi’s Curve ID Jeans. Notice anything?

The jeans, categorized as the “slight curve,” the “demi curve,” and the “bold curve” are anything but curvy. Rather than representing diverse body types, rather than representing diverse women, Levi’s advertisement simply repeats what we are used to seeing in fashion ads: the image of light-skinned, unhealthily shaped woman touted as normative.

This is particularly disheartening given Jen Phillips’ (of MotherJones.com) reminder that Levi’s used “60,000 body scans from 13 countries to develop the fit system.” With this line, Levi’s was in the unique position of representing, with their jeans and with their ad campaign, diverse bodies. My curves are not represented here. Are yours?

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Full Blown Ableism. Again.

To those of us who fight ableism, it is no surprise that dominant culture renders differently shaped bodies, bodies out of bounds, or what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls “extraordinary bodies,” as childlike, asexual, and dependent.

Rosie O’Donnell and Chelsea Handler’s recent offensive comments on little people remind us, yet again, of this all too familiar trope. In their discussion on the Oprah Winfrey Network talk show, O’Donnell admits that she has “anxiety around little people.” She then asks Handler, “Would you ever do a little person?” to which Handler says, “No, that would be like child abuse. I’d never do that.” O’Donnell agrees returning, “That’s half my issue. The problem with me is I can’t put the two things together. This is an adult person, a little person … it’s so hard for me.”

In a conversation clearly marked by privilege and prejudice, Handler’s overtly offensive comments equate bodily size with being a helpless, asexual child. In talking about Chuy Bravo, Handler states that she sometimes wants to “tackle [Chuy] … I bite Chuy sometimes,” she says. “He comes in my office and he’s so cute. … It’s like having a kid.” The ableist assumption that stature and physical difference is associated with dependence, child-like behavior, and immaturity are uncanny here.

I cannot help but make a disturbing connection between these verbal attacks and the physical assault Martin Henderson faced in the U.K. Henderson was picked up and thrown by members of an English rugby team in October 7th, 2011. Perversely and disturbingly known as “dwarf-tossing,” when one reflects on Henderson’s assault, it is not difficult to evoke the rhetoric used by Handler and O’Donnell that size is synonymous with being helpless, small, or less than.

When referencing Chuy and his current job, Handler adds insult to injury stating “Who else was going to give that guy a job though? … Someone has to rescue him. … There’s not a lot of job oppertunities for those kinds of people. They need help.” Seriously? The stripping of agency and independence here is astonishing. To refer to an entire, diversified group of people by “those kind of people” is not only reductive but is also discriminatory. To suggest that Handler herself “rescued” anyone speaks to her self-proclaimed position of privilege and power.

Particularly disrespectful are the assumptions that are made during O’Donnell and Handler’s back-and-forth: that they are in a hierarchically superior position when compared to little people. They are in the position to “save” the Other. Pity, an often repeated effect of ableism, is certainly at play here. The comment “someone had to rescue him” at once removes agency from Chuy while at the same time clearly depicting the rhetoric of pity.

Although we may be aware of sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism in our society, this conversation makes clear that just because we learn about one type of oppression does not mean that we are aware of other forms. We must continue in our vigilance to call attention to and confront oppression, particularly ableism.

The solution to expanding work opportunities for little people will not be solved with patronizing and self-congratulatory remarks. Viewing little people as complex human beings, without prejudice, is needed.

James Brown said it best: “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door, I’ll get it myself.”

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First Comes Weight Loss, Then Comes Marriage

As we demonize weight gain and celebrate weight loss, the news is out: Ricki Lake is losing weight. In proper regulatory fashion, this “victorious” act is being broadcasted. The Huffington Post reports, “‘Dancing with the Stars’ Premiere: Ricki Lake Already Lost 8 Inches.” MSNBC, OMG, Yahoo, US Magazine, and frankly too many other sources to name, all followed suit.

Naturally, I am reminded of our cultural obsession with the “right” weight, as if one exists, as if it fits for everyone, as if it is even healthy. Many of the articles citing Lake’s weight loss state that she will not be buying her “dream dress” for her upcoming wedding until the show ends, or as OMG puts it, “until her transformation is complete” (http://omg.yahoo.com/blogs/thefamous/ricki-lake-says-dwts-helped-her-drop-20-161141426.html).

The connection here between finding love, heterosexual coupling, and weight loss is uncanny. This connection is made most disturbingly in the VH1 show, “Bridal Bootcamp.”

This clip positions “every brides worst nightmare” as not just the inability to shed weight, but weight itself. Weight is abject. It is horror and it is feared, particularly for a bride-to-be. One of the women on the show states “I didn’t buy my dream wedding dress because I was embarrassed to buy such a big size,” while another states “I have no other option. I have to fit in that wedding dress.” According to these statements, weight stands in the way of love, beauty, and partnership, a ridiculous and dangerous statement. This assertion is more toxic because it is constantly reified by our culture; we are urged into believing it is truth.

In “Bridal Bootcamp,” the bootcamp instructors urge the women, “If you don’t have form you have nothing,” stressing that form, that thinness, is what makes a woman happy, what makes her beautiful, what makes her loved; here is a new desperation for thinness. One woman on the show states “I want to go home with a flat tummy and good self-esteem.” It is still disturbing, though not surprising, to me that the physicality of the body and feelings of self-worth are connected. Yet, the fallacy of the equating thinness with self-esteem remains.

Another troubling aspect of the show is its bootcamp format. Not only is the exercise, fluid and food intake of the women monitored, but we see their “progress” and “failures” on the screen. Think Foucault on steroids. The hyper-regulation and constant surveillance speaks to our current discourse surrounding weight: you will be publicly disciplined if you are overweight. You will be shamed. You will be yelled at. You will wrestle on a large cake covered in frosting (seriously). Further, you will put yourself through all of these humiliating tasks to regulate yourself.

There are many levels of disturbing in this show. Its production on VH1 and its mass consumption add to the current discourse which surrounds body image. “Bridal Bootcamp” shapes our imagination. It shapes how we understand our bodies, women, and marriage. The show exists primarily to propel the majority of women watching who do not fit the “ideal body type” advocated for on the show into self-regulation. We must fight for our imagination and the ways we relate to our bodies. The hyper-vigilance and policing of weight only serve to normalize thinness, a body type which is as unrealistic as it is uncommon.

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Six Ounces of Thin?

After receiving complaints from the National Eating Disorders Association, General Mills has decided to pull the following Yoplait Yogurt commercial:

The Association argues that the internal dialogue, the back and forth self-bargaining, that the woman in the commercial has with herself is very similar to the internal negotiations that people with eating disorders engage in constantly. And they are right.

What is most startling, though unsurprising, about this commercial for me is the punishment and reward system that riddles our food and body cultures. Ultimately, if the woman in the commercial wants to be thinner (an adjective culturally linked with beauty), the choice is hers. She can either eat the raspberry cheesecake or she can have a six ounce, low-fat, raspberry cheesecake Yoplait. She chooses the Yoplait, led by the example of a seductive, thinner woman who models the socially sanctioned eating behavior.

It’s not like this is anything new. Advertisements for low-fat, low-calorie foods abound. But this commercial’s overt discourse of bodily policing is jarring. The cultural assumption is that we have the control to make ourselves thinner which unfortunately means more beautiful, more attractive, more successful. In a word: happier. The woman’s internal dialogue and final choice makes this clear. She chooses the “right” choice and goes for the deliciously low-fat alternative. Inherent in this constant self-talk and bargaining is that one must alter and constantly improve the body. This argument is contingent upon the belief that there is always something within us which requires fixing.

In this system, the body that desires, the body that does not fix, is abject. This body must be battled and conquered on a daily basis via food choices and via cultural shaming. I think I have had my full.

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Vampires, Cure Narratives, Oh My!

I finally saw the 2009 vampire thriller Daybreakers last night and it is a movie that I must analyze using my tool of choice: disability theory.

The plot goes something like this: a plague has turned most humans into vampires and because no effective blood substitute exists, vampires are draining humans of their blood. A small group of vampire “human sympathizers” and humans who refuse to be turned have banned together to find a “cure” to vampirism.

Now, although Daybreakers does not put forth an overtly ableist discourse, you just need to dig a little.

While the film’s heroic team searches diligently for a cure to vampirism, I am reminded of the cure as a narrative trope that disability theory often interrogates. In order for disabled subjects to be agenic, to express their subjectivity, the biomedical model asserts that disabled subjects need to be cured of their disability. Daybreakers positions the cure as the only humane, effective solution to the low blood supplies that are troubling the planet.

The cure begins to look more and more appealing when communities are menaced by a growing number of Subsiders, vampires who cannot afford to purchase human blood. Without human blood, the vampires are transformed into deformed beings. Their bodies are disfigured, their cognitive skills dwindled, and they begin to embody what their name suggests: a being that is below the standard. In one word, they are disabled.

Even visually, deliberate distinctions are made between the vampires and the Subsiders.

The "civilized" vampires

A Subsider

Akin to the restrictions that subjects with disabilities faced (and to some extent still do)– people relegated to hospitals, to attics, to spaces of invisibility–the Subsiders live in the sewer systems below the city. They exist out of sight. The Subsiders become a public nuisance, however, when they leave their forced places of hiding and roam the city for food. They stand on the streets, holding signs that read “need blood.” At this point, the citizens (read: visually normative bodies) protest. There is an uncanny connection here to the Ugly Laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, laws that penalized disabled subjects who went to the streets, begging for food.

Issues of class also arise. Currently, people are routinely arrested and forbidden from panhandling in certain areas. The immense prison population that exists in the United States speaks to the overwhelming amount of people incarcerated for crimes of poverty. For the dominant culture, these subjects are out of sight, out of mind; problem solved. No one wants to see the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill. This same logic is applied to the Subsiders. Once they are seen, they have to either be cured or killed. The normative population in Daybreakers chooses the latter, resulting in mass executions (think eugenics).

Finally, the problem with low blood supplies is solved by our heros once they identify a cure. Naturally, the cure spreads to all the vampires, changing them back to humans. The population is saved once all are made “normal.” What I find most disturbing with this film is how Daybreakers frames the cure as the ideal happy ending: normalcy saves the day.

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