Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Biopower and Disempowerment

Foucault's biopower is a brilliant dissection of the most insidious kind of power: the kind that we exercise over ourselves in the service of others. We give up control of the right to define or categorize our own bodies and even twist and contort and harm our bodies in order to match some of those one-size-fits-all categories or "normal" and "right." 

I have always been fat. How do I know this? Doctors, for one, told me. According to their BMI charts, I am "morbidly obese." All my life, I've been told I am three steps away from a massive coronary, from hypertension, from being a diabetic. Eeeeeeek! OMG! How am I even still alive?!

And although tons of data exist to contradict the safety and long-term effectiveness of diets, doctors have put me on them since I was seven years old. By the time I gave dieting the middle finger at age 22, I had tried all of them. You know what the effects were? I felt weak. I over-exercised. I fantasized endlessly about diving into lakes of alfredo sauce. I took legally prescribed speed and shook for hours. My body hurt, felt weak. One of my organs started shutting down. All this was overseen by doctors, who approved. Good job, Elle!, they said. Congrats on the weight loss!

The one thing I did well? Submit myself to definitions and practices that I didn't like, that actually hurt, and that focused my entire attention on how I could better deprive myself. I had little energy left to be a good queer activist, a fiery feminist. I was socially and politically docile, hungry and weak, all because my physical and mental energies were focused on arbitrary numbers on a scale. 

The doctors helped, but ultimately, I was the one policing my own body. I kept it tightly bound within social definitions of "beautiful" and "proper" and "feminine." I gave up control of defining and even living my body, so that it was a stranger to me, an unruly monster I fought with. Biopower, baby. 

When I was 21, I started reading medical literature about dieting and realized I'd been duped. I stopped dieting. I recently wrote a journal article about how my current body size lies outside the realm of "normal" and "desirable," and that's a delicious freedom from social constraints. Now that I no longer submit (in this way, at least) to the medical definitions, I feel much more at home with me. 

Note: In order to demonstrate the, you know, power of biopower, I penned the above for my Social Psychology class. Lucky you, I decided to share. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Naming Independence

Happy Independence Day, everyone! For this 24-hour period, may grilled gluttony, safe and legal explosions, and patriotic rhetoric festoon your lives.

I chose to honor Independence Day by writing about women who change their last names after marriage. I mean, obviously. You know: Independence Day, women’s independence, Second Wave feminism, and patrilineality. This 4th of July blog post practically writes itself.

I’ll admit, this topic concerns me a lot lately, since I’m getting married in two short weeks (gulp). Honestly, I have zero desire to change my last name; it’s my remaining connection to my deceased father, it possesses a charming shortness and sweetness, and, you know, keeping it pokes convention right in the eyeball. Win-win-win.

Some cultural pressure exists to change it, however. According to conventional wisdom, women should/do change their last names to create a sense of familial unity and to give any children who come along a single last name. Plus, given pressures from friends and family, changing one’s last name can seem like a no-brainer.  

But times, they are a-changin’. According to the New York Times, about 30% of women now decide to keep their maiden names, which is up from 14% in the 80s and 26% in the aughts. According to the article, this has less to do with feminism and more to do with practicality and convenience. I can tell you from personal observation, changing your name is a bit of a logistical pain.

Sometimes, though, I wish we had a different, less gendered and unequal, system for handing down surnames to our children. In my last novel, The Tithe, everyone’s last name looked something like this: “’Meryth d’ijo.” “D’ijo” means “child of” in Spanish, and “Meryth” was the character’s mother. In the novel, citizens name their baby girls after their mothers and their baby boys after their fathers. I’ll admit, as a literary sociologist penning this novel, I not-so-secretly enjoyed challenging patrilineality, the practice of giving all children their fathers’ last names and of tracing lineage through the father’s line.

But unfortunately, we don’t live in a post-apocalyptic kinda-utopia. Okay, maybe not so unfortunately. Anyway, we have this system, and we have to navigate its traditions while balancing our own values and ideals.

Me? I’m not changing my last name. It’s a symbol of independence to me for sure, but it’s also a beloved gift my dad gave me and a symbol of all I’ve accomplished over the past 40 years. I’m happy to buck the system and join the 30% of American women who just don’t want to bother.

Happy Independence Day to everyone, no matter what that may mean to you and your choice of names!