Tag Archives: women and gender

Sunday afternoon thought break: tattooed professors

18 Mar

I’m knee-deep in end of the term business — papers and exams and grading and fun! — but I’m taking a break to ponder tattoos and academia.

Why would you ponder that, Martina? Good question, blank computer screen onto which I’m projecting the thoughts of my potential readers!

The answer is: because I just scheduled a consultation for my next tattoo. The plan is for the first line of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” to be inked onto the inside of my left arm, just below the elbow. And I’m pretty damn excited about it. But there are those who are not so excited about tattoos, especially visible ones, and their impact on one’s potential future employment. So here, in no particular order, are my thoughts on the matter.

  1. If my tattoo is really the thing that keeps me from getting a job, they probably wouldn’t have liked me as an employee anyway. It’s highly unlikely that the kinds of places that are strictly and officially anti-body art would even be an option for an academic like myself. I mean, this Jew-with-a-gay-mom-who-writes-about-abortion-and-the-apocalypse thing that I’ve got going on pretty much takes me out of the running for working at a school like Missouri Southern State University or George Fox University. And no love lost there for me!
  2. The question is whether institutions without formal rules banning tattoos will nevertheless be biased against me if I have tattoos. Good question. People are judgmental about a whole lot of things, especially bodies. But if I can successfully cover my wrist tattoo (can and occasionally do!), then I think the middle of my arm should be easily concealable. And truly, I think that the face of my field is changing such that a tattooed English professor isn’t really a concern for most.
  3. The further question is: what will my students think. Easy answer: they’ll think whatever the hell they want to think. And I’ll still be the one who gets to grade them at the end of the term! Blamo: teachers have the power! But really, studies have shown that many students actually respond positively to tattooed faculty, so I’m not actually concerned about it. Plus, I try not to show off too much of my body to my students as is, so they might never even see the new piece of work, and since I’m a curvaceous woman, they’re probably more likely to be fixated on (ahem) other parts of my body than my arms.
  4. The truth is, it’s my damn body and I’m going to mark it and decorate it and dress it and love it however I damn well please. And adding this piece of artwork to my arm is a way to mark, decorate, dress, and love myself that feels sanctified and right. So I’m going to do it and when I look at it, I’m going to love myself, and that is worth the time, the money, the pain, and whatever judgment I might get. I truly don’t understand why I shouldn’t honor my life’s progress and process in a physical way. I like making manifest what is otherwise intangible; I like the idea of writing my life onto my skin, inscribing upon myself my joy and sadness and triumphs and failures. I like when Margaret Cho says that she “love[s] heavily tattooed women” because she “imagine[s that] their lives are filled with sensuality and excess, madness and generosity, impulsive natures and fights. They look like they have endured much pain and sadness, yet have the ability to transcend all of it by documenting it on the body.” I like documenting. So I’ve chosen, for the second time now, to document in flesh and ink and word and color. Good.

Those are my thoughts, inarticulate as they may be.

But what I really want to know is this: what do you all think? Are you tattooed and, if so, what has been your experience wearing your skin out into the world? Do you want tattoos, or want to add to your collection? If so, why? What do they mean to or do for you? And of course, if you’re not so hot on tattoos, I’d love to know why that’s so!

Update: in case you’re reading this (and aren’t a subscriber to the blog) and are wondering “did she do it?”, then check out this follow-up post to see the low-quality picture of my beautiful new tattoo!

wordy: some thoughts from my classroom on bodies, perceptions, and teachable moments

6 Aug

Camp is over now. My tenure in the classroom, with these wonderful and invigorating and frustrating kids, is over for this summer. And as much as I hope I taught them a thing or two, I’m mostly still thinking about the things they taught me. Wednesday, I had an interesting moment with some of my students and I’ve been thinking about it since. And since this space is supposed to be where I reflect on teaching and self-representation, I think it’s a pretty fitting time to bring it up.

Some background: one of the courses I’m teaching this summer is an introduction to media literacy course that I’ve titled “Reading the World Well.” The overall goal is to help students learn how to read media images more critically and become more analytical, skeptical, and conscious consumers. Our first week focused on advertising images and my students proved to be amazingly adept at discerning the hidden messages that advertising sends us about our bodies, our selves, and our society. In this second week, we look at how we represent and “sell” ourselves, focusing on how  internet platforms like facebook, twitter, and personal blogs change the way we present ourselves and interact with others.


(click for link to the source)

This image — from a recent Ralph Lauren campaign — is one that we discuss at length. One of the things I try to get my students to realize is that we see images like this and we find them disgusting, horrible, and repellent. We see this and we protest the unreasonable, unattainable, inhuman images pitched to us by advertising firms that are banking on our self-loathing spurring us to spend money on their product. But we only challenge what we notice and we only notice stuff like this image, where the model has been so drastically photoshopped that she looks like a praying mantis. What we don’t notice is the subtle alterations that blanket our media landscape and that may be the biggest problem.


(click for link to the source)

We spend more time on this image and the subtle, skilled photoshoping that’s been done to make Katy Perry “acceptable” for the cover of Rolling Stone. We discuss how much time, energy, makeup, lighting, etc., went into making Perry look how she does in the before, how demonstrably beautiful she is, how unattainable her body is for many women. And then how even despite all this supposed perfection, the physical Perry isn’t good enough and she must still be digitally altered and transformed into the impossible image we see on the cover. Is this not as troubling as the Ralph Lauren ad?

So in this class we try to make the connection between the images of bodies (and female bodies in particular) and how we feel about our own bodies, how we imagine our selves: on Wednesday, we spent time talking about how we want to be seen and what we do to make that happen. Do we de-tag pictures of ourselves that we think make us look unattractive, that make us look boring, that make us look fat? Do we edit ourselves to make our image acceptable, to others and to ourselves, to fit into that impossible beauty ideal? For example, I told them all that it’s important to me that I am seen as smart, so I try to use proper grammar, a large vocabulary, and I make reference to myself engaging in “smart” activities (like reading the New York Times, being a Ph.D. student, or enjoying poetry). I think my candor helped them open up about how they, too, are doing this and we got a very interesting discussion going.

It was during this discussion that a student said something I was, am, and (I expect) will continue to be floored by:

“I want to be seen as confident in my body,” she said, “but I’m not skinny or fat enough.”
I paused, completely unsure of how to respond. “I’m sorry, can you explain that to me?” I asked.
“Well,” she elaborated, “it’s like, if I was really skinny and pretty, I could be confident in my body, because I’d be pretty enough, you know? Or, since we all, like, know we’re not supposed to feel bad about our bodies, I could be confident if I was bigger. But I’m, like, just a normal size, so I feel like it looks weird if I am all, like, confident and strutting my stuff and whatever.”

I didn’t know how to handle that statement. I just stood there, mouth agape, looking at this young girl. She’s 13 years old. By my eye, she’s beautiful, with the kind of coltish enthusiasm and awkward grace that I can already see growing into the real beauty of womanhood. Moreover, she’s someone who I would call thin. She looks healthy, well taken care of, comfortably growing and changing and turning into an adult. And yet. And yet she feels unsure of how to treat her body because she’s just, well, just healthy. Because the images of beauty and of ideal femininity that she sees most often do not look like her, do not resemble her body. And yet she feels like she cannot be confident because her body — healthy, average, etc. — is not something she sees regularly.

I think I missed a real teachable moment here, because I couldn’t articulate just how sad, astute, and important her statement was. Because I couldn’t imagine how to stand in front of my classroom and say that yes, I, too, wonder where the women who look like me are. That I, too, wonder what exactly a “healthy” body is supposed to look like, what an “able” body is, what it means to feel “pretty”. That I, too, sometimes look in the mirror and hate my body — a body that treats me well, that works the way I want it to, that exists in a comfortable equilibrium with itself — and then, on the same day, look at pictures of myself on this blog and love what I see. That I, too, am uncertain of the standards I’m holding myself to.

I talk to my students regularly about what a “good” body is. I repeat, over and over, that a good body is the body that we’re in. That a good body is a body wherein the cells continue to split via that miracle of mitosis, wherein the blood still delivers the lungs’ oxygen to our muscles and our fingertips and our brain. And yet. And yet this idea of what a good body and a good woman and a good image might be is not so simple as just rejoicing in the efficacy of our physical selves because it’s absolutely bound up in how those selves are sold to us.

I think back on the girl I was at her age and think, yes. Yes I hated myself, then, for being neither so thin that I was acceptable nor so strong that I could not care. And I’ve regularly looked back at pictures of myself in embarrassment, unsure of how to love myself in retrospection when I still feel the sting of the shame and self-loathing I foisted upon myself then.

We moved on. I lost the moment. I didn’t say anything to this girl. But her statement stuck with me such that I sat there that day, typing that explanation, that question, while students in my next class were writing their short stories. While the class was imagining something new, crafting fictive worlds of their own creation, I was thinking back on that one girl in that one class and wondering what the world will look like for her, for them, as they all grow up. And now here I am, reading over these words, days later, and wondering what I could have said then, to her and to them and to myself at that age, about how we know ourselves, how we see ourselves, how we relate to ourselves and why, sweet goodness, why we are being taught to so very much loathe ourselves.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 149 other followers