Saturday, March 15, 2008

Of Bonnets and Belly Fat

I loved I Heart Huckabees the first time I saw it. Existentialism, feminism, global politics, quantum physics-inspired spirituality, compassion, anger, comedy. Each time I see it, I see something new.

But every time I've watched it, when Naomi Watts decides to stop dressing in skimpy clothes and performing the sexy-girl act as the face of Huckabees, I've turned to Kevin and asked, "what is up with that bonnet?"

Watts' character, "Dawn," is having an identity crisis in which she realizes that she has based her life on appearances--her own beauty, the appearance of success and the appearance of a good relationship. Recognizing that appearances can mask what lies beneath the surface--including a crappy relationship, an unsatisfying career, and a human being of true depth; she gives that all up and demands that she should still be able to do her job--be a spokesmodel for Huckabees--wearing bib overalls and a bonnet.

It's funny, of course, that she insists on being a model but refuses to dress like one. But the bonnet troubled me -- it went beyond funny to just confusing. I mean, baggy clothes I get... but, a bonnet?

Today as I was reading this piece, I thought again of the bonnet. In it, Fatemeh Fakhraie writes about a handful of articles she is seeing recently that focus on the idea that Muslim women aren't necessarily dowdy and can in fact be quite interested in fashion. Even those who choose conservative dress, head scarf, etc., may in fact choose quite flashy - even racy - clothes to wear underneath. One article goes so far as to speculate about hot pants and bikinis.

She writes:
All this “beneath the veil” crap is tired. Women who wear more conservative clothes in line with their interpretations of Islamic requirements just wear clothes under those things! But these articles can’t be satisfied with that. What kind of clothes?

She later goes on to say:

So, according to these articles, Muslim women walking around in austere black robes are practically naked underneath. Ironic, isn’t it? The majority of these women wear conservative clothes to take focus away from their bodies (in line with cultural practices or certain Islamic schools of thought), and these articles bring it right back to them.

I went through a period in my life when I was suspicious of Muslim women who chose to cover their hair or bodies. This was during my college-age feminist awakening, and I mistakenly bought into the idea that this wasn't a truly feminist choice--that this choice was driven by a patriarchal culture and religion.

Then I started reading what Muslim feminists had to say about that, and, needless to say, I hadn't been getting it. As a statement against the sexualization of women in the west and as a personal choice that frees women from an intense focus on their physical attractiveness, the choice to cover oneself is powerful. And of course I had missed the religious dimension--the possibility that one might choose to take the focus away from one's body in order to emphasize one's spirit.

Which brings me back to the rather Amish-looking bonnet. It's not just a hat or a scarf, but a bonnet worn by religious women who consciously choose to turn away from physical beauty in order to focus on spiritual/religious matters. In a movie that also rails against US dependence on oil and raises the specter of September 11, 2001 -- the violence done in the name of American progress and the violence done in reaction to our imperialism -- I now realize that the bonnet in the film is like a western version of the Muslim woman's head scarf.

And what was my reaction the first five times I saw the film? To laugh and dismiss the bonnet. I could not fully appreciate Watts' wonderful acting as she portrays Dawn's awakening and rejection of the insistent and exhausting compulsion of our culture to value women primarily on the basis of their sexual attractiveness. I missed it, because I was focused on her clothes.

It gets exhausting to constantly go on about the objectification of women, the male gaze and all that, but heck, until things change I guess it bears repeating -- and recognizing the moments when I have bought into it.

As a younger feminist, I became acutely aware of the connection between rape and the notion that women's bodies are not their own, but exist as an object of sexual satisfaction.

When I became pregnant with my first child, I experienced anew the ways in which women's bodies are viewed as public domain. People would touch my belly of course, but what truly troubled me was the political claim people seemed to feel they had to my uterus. How I behaved during my pregnancy, what I ate, how I would give birth and what I did to prepare for that--somehow, my body was everyone else's business.

And now, as an overweight woman, I have lately begun to feel that many people take the shape of my body personally. They see my being overweight as a sign that I am lazy or not very bright. Or more charitably, they assume I am unhealthy and pity me for not caring enough about myself to make being thin a priority.

The reality of course is that my body size has nothing to do with my intelligence, my happiness, or my self esteem. It doesn't even tell the story of my health--because when I was thin I smoked and drank to the point of vomiting on an at least weekly basis.

These days I sleep well, drink lots of water and not much else, eat my fruits and veggies, stay active -- mowing the lawn, gardening, walking and chasing kids. Could I eat better? Sure. Could I exercise more? Well... it's not as important to me as quality time with my kids, partner, or writing, but sure, in theory, I could. So, I'm fat. And emotionally and physically healthier than I was when I was thin.

I don't even like to write all of that explanation, except that it feels like what's really heavy is not my weight, but the weight of the expectations that are placed on my body. My skin looks patchy, I've got belly fat, my dark hair grows in "unfeminine" places like my upper lip. I've got stretch marks from two pregnancies, a twice-opened C-section scar, flat feet and stubby fingers. I sometimes worry about whether my hair cut flatters my face or whether my ears are so crooked that no pair of glasses will every sit straight. And none of these things tell you much about who I am, do they?

In graduate school, I read an essay that discussed the idea that men hate women because women's bodies contain the one form of power that men can never have--the power to create life. I'm not a gender essentialist -- not all women are mothers. But, all women and all men have mothers. We are not self-creating, no matter how much the misogynist might wish to pretend it were so.

I don't know if misogyny has its roots in the symbolic power of childbirth, or whether its roots can be better understood in studying primate behavior. Whether evolved or psychological, misogyny is alive and well despite our best efforts. Thankfully, not all men hate women, and there are even a large number of men who don't view women as objects.

This I also know: our bodies are just vessels for this life.

The most beautiful man or woman eventually will recognize this truth as their body becomes frail in old age. The skin hangs off no matter how thin you are, the veins show through the make-up. What's inside this skin can grow richer with each life experience--but only if what's inside is cultivated and nurtured.

My belly fat hides a belly that has contained three human beings, two of whom were born into beautiful little boys. My splotchy face masks a mind that jumps between associations and delights in bringing ideas to life through words.

This skin contains a life that calls out for love and connection, that grows deeper with age, that wants to understand.


Anonymous said...

beautiful, Ro! Thank you.


sajbrfem said...

I love this film! And everything you've said here is spot on.