Operation Caffeination

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Natural Bodies

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I wrote a paper recently on Susan Bordo’s concept of the natural body and how it relates to Michel Foucault’s theory of panopticism. Essentially, Bordo argues that our idea of a “normal” female (or male) body can’t be accurate, because societal pressure to conform to that norm begins to influence us at such an early age.

It’s easy to recognize this cultural body manipulation historically; from foot binding to anorexia, circumcision to ritualistic tattooing, social history is replete with examples of this kind of developmental interference.

Our own culture’s insistence on body manipulation is often less dramatic than, saying, coining practices in Southeast Asia. However, the consequences of our forms of alteration are at least as far-reaching.

NPR ran an article in Feb. 2011 titled “Why Keeping Little Girls Squeaky Clean Could Make Them Sick. (Read it here: “http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/02/04/133371076/how-keeping-little-girls-squeaky-clean-could-make-them-sick) The article discusses how our cultural obsession with keeping little girls clean and pretty may explain why women are three times more likely than men to develop autoimmune disorders later in life. Raising our daughters in a more or less sterile environment literally prohibits their natural immune systems from developing, and leads to an adulthood characterized by illness and fragility -otherwise known as femininity.

This issue became very personal to me recently when I announced to my friends and family members that our most recent ultrasound had revealed that we should expect to be cuddling with a precious baby daughter sometime in late June. We, her parents, are mainly thrilled about the CUDDLING. Everyone else saw the word “daughter” and started piling on well-intentioned advice, some of which I’ve been writing down just so I can show my daughter some day how close she came to leading a life of boredom and gossip magazines.

In particular, people have really taken an interest in cluing me in to how dramatically different it will be for me to raise a little girl after having successfully navigated three years of parenting a boy. Apparently, none of my old stand-bys will suffice with this kid; I’m going to need new toys, new clothes, and really just a whole new approach to daily living in order to adapt to her needs.

What really bothers me about these conversations is the way my own experiences and opinions are rendered moot by the sheer survival of these generationally-accepted “truths.” How can I expect to convince a woman that boys are not incapable of developing nutritive abilities, when that particular “truth” about masculinity has played a fundamental role in the parenting techniques for members of her family for perhaps hundreds of years?

I fully expect to see significant differences between my son and my daughter as they mature. Some of those differences may be related to their gender; some of them may be distinctive personality traits, distinctive because they are unique people and not just “kids” in a generic sense. And some of those differences will be due to social programming; I will never know what kind of a role these various factors played in shaping who my children become; all I can really control is the kind of influence I am in their lives.

Even if my son becomes a steroid-munching athlete and my daughter never outgrows tiaras, I know in my heart that they are both people, both capable of anger and aggressiveness, and both capable of tenderness and love. Society can condemn and discourage, but it can’t completely obliterate a person’s distinctive traits. We simply find more creative ways of expressing those traits that meet with cultural resistance.

And perhaps that explains why my son’s best friend, an adorable two year old girl with fluffy brown curls and a permanently runny nose, loves to kiss owies away, while my chubby-faced preschooler prefers to “fix” owies with a toy screw driver. I don’t know what variety of factors lead to his decision to involve a screw driver in the healing process, but I can see that he is expressing compassion and gentleness in a way that feels right to him. If he can retain that ability throughout his life, I will be happy.

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Written by GRSeim

February 25, 2011 at 1:58 am

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