Friday, February 27, 2015

Oops, was that the line I just stepped over?

In class, we discussed female bodybuilding and its perception in society. There seemed to me three main purposes to bodybuilding:

  1. To be in shape.
  2. To compete in competitions of strength.
  3. To compete in aesthetic competitions.
Of these, the main ones which worry me are the ones in the third category. These women surpass the limits of femininity and plunge head-first into the masculinity.
More ripped than my (and most girls') boyfriend
These girls tend to be more willing to take steroids or other muscle enhancements to achieve increased muscle mass. The health issues associated with such drugs and workouts are staggering. It thus doesn't surprise me that videos of these aesthetic competitions shock and awe the class. I couldn't seem to look away as these huge women tottered about the stage, flexing almost balloon-like muscles in a deep orange spray tans.

The surprise did come when we were talking about women who workout to be in shape. Many in the class described these 'fit' women (as opposed to almost obscenely muscled women in competitions) to be unattractive, but perhaps that surprised me because I consider myself to be pretty fit. I'm perhaps not as fit as some of the bodybuilders featured in the video we watched in class, but I was in a similar condition during weight training over winter break.

Female Bodybuilder Featured in a Motivational Video
Me, Post-Boxing Practice on 2/24/15 (Excuse the Face)

I suppose she has a bit more in the arms than I do, but I'm on par when it comes to abs, I think. While I admire the fitness of the women featured in these motivational videos, I question their reasoning behind working out with their hair down, piercings in (note the belly button piercing on the above bodybuilder) and makeup on.

I maintain a high level of fitness like these bodybuilders, working out for two hours and running just over two miles, about six days a week. I identify strongly with these women and the physical goals they strive to achieve. When weightlifting, I admit to feeling extraordinarily attractive when completing a set of strenuous exercises. In particular, completing high-rep sets of squats (generally my own weight plus 25 pounds), deadlifts or power cleans make me feel more attractive than any amount of makeup or complimentary clothing ever has. But being at this level of fitness doesn't make someone stand out, at least not in a way that's never been noticeable to me. After all, no one in class noticed my fitness level (nor seemed to believe me when I claimed to be similar to the bodybuilders we were discussing). Is this surprising?

These women can easily cover up any "unacceptable" breaking of social norms. A common emphasis of our class is how the visibility of a body modification can affect its acceptance in society. So perhaps it is for this reason that fit women are increasingly common.

But my real question for this post is in my title: where is the line of attractiveness, and (narcissistically) did I go over it? An outsiders' perspective on whether my fitness level crosses the boundary of femininity would be welcome!

No Such Thing as too Much?

Body builders form an identity by trying to surpass their body’s natural limits and continuously change those limits. Their thoughts have to be around being bigger, and stronger, most of the time. However,  when most people lift something heavy and think that is when  they will stop lifting or that will be my limit, a body builder must train until that object or weight becomes light or easy to lift.

Body builders make me think of gymnasts and dancers. They are trying to change the way their bodies move in way that changes their capacities as humans. Body builders have this physique with muscles that appear everywhere. Dancers and gymnasts are flexible to the point that makes someone wonder, what is a body capable of?
These sports seem to have the same thing in common. One must be excited to excel and master a new skill or be able to lift more weight. However, there is also the factor that in something like body building or gymnastics, one cannot be satisfied with the personal limits one has modified.

A gymnast and a body builder have to always be looking for more. When a person is redefining his or her own limits to become better and do more, that person is working hard and gaining skill. Yet is that ever problematic? I wonder if sometimes a person could be more fulfilled if he or she has a certain goal and was able to be satisfied at that point. Still, it seems hard to imagine that there is an easy point in which an athlete would want to stop improving. Is that just part of our nature as humans? Can it be destructive?

I think this push to surpass all limits has something to do with the increase in steroid use among athletes such as body builders. They are redefining their limits, but perhaps there is a point at which a person must stop. Maybe there is an inevitable limit of the human body. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Destructive Body Modification, But Not in the Way You Would Think

After reading a few of the other blogs that individuals have posted, I think I want to focus more on the issue of tattoos on women as a form of branding in general. When Professor Peace showed us the image of the woman who had been branded on the inside of her lip with the name of her pimp. By doing this, that woman lost all sense of her own independence. Even years later when she no longer was involved in prostitution, she still had the reminder of her past with that tattoo.

Tattooing is a permanent form of body modification, especially when placed in highly visible areas. When one chooses to mark themselves in this way, it can be absolutely beautiful and expressive. But to think that something intended to be art could be used as a horrible reminder of the pain an individual has suffered is devastating. Instead of modifying their body to make themselves feel better, these women end up feeling much, much worse. Years ago, when tattoos were less common, women were scrutinized for their brandings. They were seen as freak shows and often put on display for the bodily markings they could not change. Nowadays, female tattoos are much more widely accepted, but this branding is still an issue. Although not visibly disturbing, these tattoos can still scar the woman who wears them.

I suppose I always knew that tattoos could have a negative side to them. When I thought “negative,” I always leaned more toward the gang and prison aspect. I never realized that they could be used to mark women, as a form of dominance, as well. After this past week’s discussion, I am very bothered by the use of these tattoos as a form of power of women. This week has left an unsettling feeling in my stomach, specifically because we, as a class, have focused so much on the forms of body modification that make individuals feel better about themselves. Tattoos can be destructive, but not in the way society would believe, and I feel that this should definitely be brought more to the forefront of discussion. 
With the fear of being too repudiative regarding Olive Oatman’s narrative of her times and the implications of her time in the Native American groups,  I would like to focus on the meanings and reflections i had regarding her story. 

From my experience, body modifications have been a result of wanting to fit in (with the right nose) or expressing individuality through artwork (tattoos and piercings). Overall, its been a personal choice to have modifications.  The Oatman’s sister’s story brought me back to the days of tagging and rituals. 

The sexualization, facial tattoos and other modifications were culture shocks to the sisters but they eventually became accustomed to the rituals and lifestyle. As many of my peers said when the Oatman sisters were ‘rescued' back into society it wasn’t necessarily for their benefit. They were outsiders in american society and already emotionally distraught from the attack and then the kidnapping from the native reserves. 

From speaking with my grandparents and their friends after the holocaust, they spoke about how they felt coming back into a free society with scars and number tattoos.   They stated that even without the physical scars it was difficult to reassimilate.  The visual markers not only made them feel less confident but also made people on he streets stare and treat them differently. 

The Oatman sisters seemed to have similar experiences, which were only heightened by the fact they were women, and branding was used for intimidation and claiming property. 


Tattoos as a Way of Branding

This week in class, we discussed mainly about tattoos, and more specifically tattoos on girls. Although I have always been a fan and admirer of tattoos; however, after our class discussion, I was able to see another side and perspective about certain types of tattoos (which are not very desirable, especially for women). Most of the time, I wouldn’t mind to see girls with a few tattoos (actually is something that I find attractive), but after discussing about using tattoos as a form of dominance (on girls) it kind of made me question tattoos. Despite hearing cases in the past about girls getting used as products, I never paid too much attention to it, but finding out that many of these girls are forced to get tattoos in order to get branded by their “owner” or pimp was eye opening. I don’t want to act too naive when it comes to what has happened and probably still happening in less fortunate places around the world, but this was actually the first time I heard about girls getting branded with tattoos by their procurer, and I have no doubt that many cases like this exist. I believe using tattoos in order to brand girls will cause a lot of mental and psychological pain on the victims (along with the physical pain they already experience) because it will remind them of the actions they must make in order to survive. Tattoos are made with permanent ink, which means it will stay with you forever, and I can’t imagine a girl having to look at a tattoo on their skin telling them that they belong to someone as if they were an object. It is sometimes hard to see and imagine how cruel some human beings can be to others. Sex slavery is already bad as it is, and making the girls get tattoos to let other procurers that they already belong to someone is really downgrading them to another level. We also discussed that some girls are forced to get tattoos as a form of punishment when trying to escape prostitution. The procurer of the girls who try to escape will brand them with tattoos as a reminder that they can’t run away. Some girls who cannot afford their exit from prostitution will try and escape, but if they aren’t successful they will have an even worse time than they already had. Absolutely nobody should ever have to go through this kind of misery and more actions should be done to stop and avoid such circumstances. I am still a fan of tattoos and still find it attractive when girls have one or a couple tattoos, but seen how tattoos can be abused and used for the wrong reasons made me realize that tattoos aren’t always as great. I do not consider forced tattoos as a form of art, but I see it rather as a form to belittle and humiliate another human being.

Identity and Autonomy

Olive Oatman's family was killed on a westward journey, and she and her her sister were subsequently taken by the Native Americans who attacked them and enslaved. After about a year of abuse and servitude, she was sold to the Mojave Native Americans. It was with the Mojave that she received her iconic blue tattoo on her face and arms. She was later "rescued" from the Mojave and brought back into white society, where her clearly visible tattoos became a contentious topic.
Oatman claimed the Mojave forced her to get this tattoo to mark her as a slave, but studies suggest the markings on Oatman were more consistent with markings of any other member of their tribe. Apparently the tattoos were meant to show ancestors in the afterlife which tribe people belonged to. It was supposedly an honorable marking, but still an example of ownership.
Although tattooing or branding slaves with certain distinguishing marks is a more obvious form of ownership, willingly marking people of a tribe to proclaim them to the world as a member is certainly displaying ownership as well. These people had loyalty to the tribe. They most likely died serving the tribe in some way, and for that dedication they would be honored in the afterlife in some way. Because this tattoo was meant as a sort of initiation as a true tribe member, the question of autonomy for the tribe members wasn't really a hot issue because all members willingly received it (ignoring Olive Oatman's presence). But consider a more modern example: gangs. Notorious gangs all over the world use tattoos as a way of marking their members for recognition. Many use it as a sort of status symbol. A permanent "Don't mess with me" symbol scrawled in a visible location across their body. They can use it to intimidate others and show camaraderie or unity amongst members. The gang members see it as a positive thing because they will likely benefit from their status symbol in one way or another. In towns, they can benefit from the fear it strikes in non-gang members. In prisons, they can benefit by easily being able to find an ally. But what about children born into the gang lifestyle? They don't get a choice how they get to live. The gang life is all they know. They have been ingrained to think the gang lifestyle is the best way of life. So they "willingly" join the gang and get tattoos to mark them as such. Though they seem willing, most people would agree these kids don't have autonomy.
So what is really so different between the Mojave marking their tribe and gangs marking their members? They are both doing it to identify themselves as part of a group of people. And in both cases, the lifestyle begins at birth and it becomes all the person knows. I'm not trying to say Mojave life is similar to gang life, because it certainly is not. But I recognize this argument of autonomy can be carried over to any question of upbringing. Every single style of upbringing and society limits our autonomy in some way. Do we wear clothes because we want to or because we were raised in a world in which everyone is always clothed?

Consent, but Free Choice?

            Most of the body art modifications that we have discussed in class are products of free choice. Going under the knife for cosmetic reasons, getting a piercing on any part of the body, and even getting needled for a tattoo are all personal choices that individuals have made on their own. Some prefer earlobe piercing while others prefer genital piercing. Some prefer a rhinoplasty while others prefer a face-lift. Some prefer a hidden tattoo while others prefer the in-your-face ones. All of these body modifications are performed under the consent of the individual. When we started to discuss in class Olive Oatman’s blue chin tattoo, I was torn and indecisive whether or not it was out of her free choice. Did she really elect to have her chin tattoo in blue? – Something so eye-catching that it’s hard to miss by anyone. Some said that it was indeed out of her free will while others believe it was not. When I read the chapter Becoming Mohave in the book written by Margot Mifflin The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman, my initial thought was that it was similar to China’s foot binding tradition.
            A passage in the book states, “Tribal elder Llewellyn Barrackman believed that Olive, like most Mohave females, chose to be tattooed because, he said, the tribe never forced the tattoos on anyone.” This quote clearly indicates that the chin tattoos are of the female’s personal choice, however, what follows is what reminds me of the foot binding tradition and indecisive whether it’s really free choice. “Indeed, some Mohaves resisted chin tattoos until they got older and were either persuaded or chose to get them for fear that they would be held back in the afterlife without them.” A chin tattoo does not only represent their existence in the tribe, it also signifies that they will not end up in a desert rat hole after they pass away. Certainly they are not pointing a gun (or a spear for that matter, since they didn’t own guns back then) at anyone’s head to force them to get a tattoo but they are undeniably putting the pressure on the females to get their chin tattooed.
            A similar debate could apply to foot binding. The young girls elected to bind their foot for ‘beauty’ so that they could marry into prestigious families and have a good life. Well, here we have Oatman and the other Mohave girls who were apparently given the choice of tattooing or not, keeping in mind that if they don’t they are told that they are going to end up in a desert rat hole after death. Now, are they getting it done willingly? On the surface, maybe, but inside they may not have wanted to. The term ‘beauty’ differs from everyone’s perspective. Perhaps the Mohave females perceive the chin tattoo as a form of beauty and they did indeed tattoo their chin eagerly. However, if that wasn’t the case, then it surely wasn’t free choice, it was more of a kind of social pressure and the only way to conform was to get a blue tattoo on their chin.

            The article Brazil's child sex trade soars as 2014World Cup nears by The Guardians puts into perspective the issue of legalized prostitution in Brazil. Brazil’s issue with prostitution during the World Cup is somewhat like a version of modern day ‘free choice’ tattoo. The females get the tattoo as a form of ownership. Each gang have different trademark. Do the females have a say in whether or not they want to get the tattoo? The answer is a simple no. The trademark of the particular gang is tattooed onto the females so that other pimps wouldn’t solicit them under their ‘wings’. The females do go through the procedure voluntarily because they fear that those individuals will hurt them if they don’t get it done. Yet, it is another kind of pressure that they face even though they apparently did it willingly.

The Struggles of Fitting In

     The journey of Olive Oatman demonstrates to me a global perspective on the idea of body art and modifications.  You have different groups celebrating the decoration of Oatman’s chin for different reasons, and we have other groups that regard it as esoteric and odd.  The markings clearly carry different social values between the Native American groups and the contemporary American culture of the time.  The dichotomy in ideologies demonstrates why it is so difficult to say on a large scale whether or not body modifications are revered on a large scale.
     The Oatman sisters were captured by the Yavapis Native Americans as their family was on a journey with other Mormon families.  Olive and Mary Ann were the only two members of their family to survive the attack, but they were forced into a life that was drastically different from their own.  The Oatman family was Mormon, which had traditionally American conservative values.  Suddenly, they were thrust into a vastly different culture.  The Yavapis Native Americans used body art as symbolism.  In their culture, women got chin tattoos sometime between puberty and marriage.  This marked a beginning of a connection to deceased relatives.  Obviously, body art and modification was not something that was on many Mormon agendas.  While the Oatman sisters felt very out of place, they grew somewhat accustomed to the Yavapis Native Americans and vice versa, which allowed them to gain a better understanding for each other’s cultures.
     After about a year, the sisters were sent to the Mohave Native Americans.  Again, the Oatman sisters were in for a culture shock.  The Mohaves had highly sexualized rituals.  Marriage was monogamous, but adultery was not necessarily frowned upon.  On the concept of body art and modification, Mohave Native Americans wore masks, face paint, and mud slathered hair at feasts.  Again, in terms of physical appearance and views on sexual practices, the Oatmans were out of place.  However, Oatman’s chin tattoo visually integrated her into the tribe.  Even though she felt out of place, the Mohave Native Americans did not necessarily view her as out of place.
     An interesting question is whether or not the Oatman sisters being “rescued” was truly to their benefit.  The Oatman sisters, as out of place as they were, had become accustomed to the new culture they had spent so much time with.  Part of that becoming accustomed had to do with Olive’s chin tattoo.  While someone who was essentially kidnapped could come back into the world and slowly get back into their own rhythm, Oatman had been physically altered in a way that was never before seen by most of the American public.  Had the Oatman sisters just been rescued with no marks, they probably would have been highly cared for and essentially coddled by society back into American life.  However, this was not the case, and Olive was put on the circus rounds because of her appearance.  I find it interesting that just a mere chin tattoo turned Oatman from someone people would feel sympathy for into an object of voyeurism.  Olive went from someone who fit right in to someone who was stared it, and that is when she was trying to get integrated back into her original culture.

     The entire narrative is extremely interesting.  When taken into the Native American groups, the Oatman sisters were not entirely respected because women did not have power.  Even though they became fairly comfortable with their new groups, the truth is that women did not have the social clout to get out of many forms of body modification.  While the chin tattoo was voluntary, Olive did not have much of a choice.  Therefore, body modification, while making Oatman fit into the context of the culture, was a sign of dominance.  When going back into the community that rescued her, she suddenly lost all sympathy because of something that was done to alter her appearance, that she was not necessarily in favor of.  Her own culture did not try to learn about her experiences or try to understand, but instead turned her into an object.  This dichotomy in body art perceptions is extremely interesting, and the layered nature of perceptions of body modification still exist today.