Monthly Archives: November 2011

A guest post by Kira Petersson Martin

Subjectivities, identities, and space are all concepts that occupy my thoughts lately. I question their connections and boundaries, but mostly I question their relationships to bodies. In my thesis I focus mostly on the maternal body, whose it is, where it fits, how it works and what it does…

All of these questions hinge on notions of subjectivity and identity, space and place. Especially of interest lately is the idea of the spaces bodies take up, and what that says about identity and subjectivity.

Within my own work, “space” has a very specific meaning. I follow Henri Lefebvre’s use of space, where it is seen as a socio-cultural construction, and also draw from Edward Soja’s notion of space. Soja holds that space is political, theorising that it can be divided into First, Second, and Thirdspace, each offering a different look into the power structures of the normalising elements of society. Given this multiplicity of space, one can be both excluded from and included in multiple space at any time, and move from one to another easily.

Traditionally I have applied this to ideologies of motherhood and maternal identity, but here I would like to use space as a way to investigate my relationship with my maternal body, and the physical and conceptual space it occupied.

During the last two months of my pregnancy I was large, nearly twice the size I am now. During that time I’d never questioned the outrageous growth in my body, I never felt fat or unattractive – insecurities that had followed me for most of my life – but rather powerful, maybe even beautiful. To be clear, this is not a universal experience, but it was mine. It wasn’t until the final week of my pregnancy that I experienced any physical dysphoria, and it started with an offhand comment from my then father-in-law. We had just walked into a restaurant when we met him. I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks. The second he laid eyes on me, his eyes popped and his jaw dropped. The only thing he said was, “Good god girl! You’re huge!”

From that point on my relationship with my pregnant body changed. I felt like the pregnancy was dragging, like I wanted to finally have my baby outside of me. I began to think I could literally feel the skin on my belly stretching. It was painful. Looking back on it, the sudden shift in attitude and physical sensation seems odd. Why did a random exclamation from a man I had relatively little to do with affect me so much? What had changed?

In theorising my own pregnancy I have come to understand that, in some ways, I enjoyed taking up more space. While most of my self-image issues had revolved around the fear of taking up too much space, being too large, during pregnancy I had felt like I’d *earned* the extra space I was occupying. It was intimately tied up with my identity, the “me as mother” that I’d been constructing, and was a public display of that motherhood.

This positive subjectivity was only increased by the comments and reactions I received from others. “Look at the baby belly! It’s going to be such a healthy baby!” and “Looks like you’re coming along!” and even “You must feel so powerful!”… In my experience, my large size had been a positive.

The first negative comment I received changed that instantly. Suddenly, I no longer felt I had the right to take up that extra space. I had stolen it from other, more deserving people. I had been greedy, selfish, and gluttonous. These dysphoric emotions manifested in  physical sensations which only served to further my depression. At the time of my pregnancy I bought – hook, line, and sinker – the idea that mothers were meant to be selfless. I felt that I had failed in that regard before my child was even born.

Looking back, it seems like such a ridiculous reaction. Of course, the shift was based in my own subjective space: I had always struggled with body image. It did not represent a new growth in my sense of self, but rather a return to a previous self-hating state. On the contrary, pregnancy had given me my first taste of body satisfaction. It had allowed me to conceive of the ever-expanding my space my body occupied as rightfully mine and socially sanctioned. It had made my size a positive part of my identity.

Other women have had different experiences with pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing. However, I feel that utilising notions of space, subjectivity, and identity can serve as a useful analytical entry into understanding many women’s experiences of maternity and motherhood.


 A guest post by Jess Khouri

Sparked by a recent literature assignment of mine, I recently started thinking about material representations of fatness and the absence of positive portrayals of fat in popular literature. Fat can be the punch line, the friend, the enemy, but never the protagonist, never the hero, never the main focus. On my search for literary fat positivity, I came across an article entitled “Finding Fat Lit” written by novelist, Matt Stewart.

Finding “fat lit.” Finding fat in lit? Finding the stories fat tells in lit? Perfect!

The article was disappointing to say the least. The author’s desire to find fat in literature is his desire to see more fat characters representing weight loss, discussing their struggles, giving fat readers someone to identify with while they are simultaneously dieting themselves. (His assumption being that they should be dieting themselves) He later states how food is so satisfying and delicious today that it’s understandable that “obesity” is occurring.

Perpetuation of the fat as glutton narrative. Great.

However, his understanding of fat characters made me consider how certain people have control over the stories fat tells in literature. Authors write fat to narrate their own perceptions, and often misconceptions, of fatness. Much of literature is lacking in fat characters, period, let alone a fat protagonist. And if a fat character does appear, they are often the sidekick, normally used for humour, or the villain, in a symbolic attempt to represent the evils fat causes to the individual, the society, and *gasp* the nation.

And what of a lead character whose body type is never stated? There is an unspoken assumption that we will understand the character as thin because a fat character could not possibly play the role. Literary fat, it seems, is told very similarly to the way fat in society gets told, or rather read.

If fat bodies in literature are telling a narrative of weight loss and if fat is written as gluttonous, unhealthy, and lazy, how does that differ from the way fat is read in real life?

What is the difference between literary fat being read through an author’s construction and our fat in society being read through social constructions? Is our fat not narrating a story to those around us? To those reading our bodies?

What are the stories of our fat telling? And who is narrating them?

Fat, in social settings, gets read through a lens that is inherently fat-phobic. Fat isn’t read as a narrative of its physical materiality, it tells a story of assumptions, weight-based beliefs, and hatred that we come to think of as truth. I use ‘we’ as the dominant groups in society, most likely thin, that have the power to render fat a negative. Fat is seen as a number of negative, cruel, and incorrect assumptions. Fat cannot be seen for its simple physicality, it is impossible to separate it from the social meanings it has come to encompass. And fat is often read as a group, and not on a individual level, rendering fat one, negative, homogenous group of people who do not get to narrate their own stories.

Drawing a parallel between the stories fat bodies tell in literature and the stories that get read in society, we can begin to ask questions of whether literature reflects reality or vice versa. The both are likely mutually constitutive.

I fear that Matt Stewart’s attempt to shrink fat characters through weight-loss narratives, rendering fat identity invisible in storylines, will even further devalue fat identity in society. How can there be a positive identity towards a body that popular outlets, like literature, are continually trying to diminish? To what extent do we internalize this weight-loss narrative and start reading our own bodies as ones that could and should be thin? I call here for fat positivity in novels, for portrayals that recognize the diversity of all sizes and do not fall victim to the assumption that “inside every fat body is a thin one.”

Perhaps once literary narratives start breaking stereotypes around fatness, the narratives of our own bodies will change, we will tell the stories we want, and others will read them positively, as though we are the protagonists, and no longer the villains, in real life.

Childbirth, a friend once commented to me , is not a spectator sport.

And, as I sat in my own childbirth preparation class a few years after that conversation, listening in on the tape of another woman’s journey through childbirth, I agreed with my friend. I was a voyeur in this journey. I had no right to be there, even if the woman had authorized use of the tape in our class. What I was hearing – the moaning raga of woman, body and baby – was illicit, taboo. While the woman in question was laboring at home, in the company of her family, I felt very strongly that her journey was not my journey; I had not been invited to be a part of it. It was only after the fact, on tape, with 7 hours compressed into 10 minutes, that I had been invited in. And I didn’t quite feel like a wanted guest.

My own mother, body and baby raga was less melodious than the one we heard in class. It, too, was attended by a large public. A phalanx of medical professionals surrounded me, from my midwife, a woman I knew well, to a range of anonymous interns, doctors, and nurses. It was noisy. It was bright. It was busy and I was trying to keep it together. My raga crescendoed through the busy-ness and my son was born, a champagne cork popping out of its bottle.

And yet.

Despite the vast differences in our experiences: home vs. hospital; family vs. medical professionals; low risk vs. high risk… there was something that brought us together: the moaning raga. Mine, curiously, sounded so very much like hers. It’s a thought that kept recurring to me as my voice echoed the undulations of her melody, tracing similar patterns. In that raga, we came together. Spectator became participant, mutual guests in each other’s journeys.

I wonder how I would hear that raga today. Would I feel like an uninvited guest? Or would we commune over our harmonies and our dissonances?

It’s something I thought of when I read that Marni Kotak planned to make a performance piece out of her childbirth. Transforming the gallery into her home, and opening her space to a limited number of  guests, she created a unique space that was both intensely private and profoundly public. For three weeks, she reclined in her transplanted living room, sharing conversations with gallery guests. Topics reflected her own self positioning as both artist and mother. And finally, in the company of some 20 spectator-guests, the birth journey itself began.

Childbirth, for Kotak, became a way of rendering poetic and meaningful the everyday. In the process, she also intervened (perhaps unwittingly)  in the politics of childbirth and the tensions between the ever-increasing medicalisation of a ‘natural’ body practice and the growing movement to return birth to the home.

A home birth in a public space. A conversation about motherhood in a space reserved for high art. A mother as artist. An artist as mother. Lived body practice as performed body art. In each of these moments, the everyday is rendered strange. In the process, these moments become the sites for restaging, rethinking, and reimaginings. What does it mean to claim the motherspace as both public and private? Where might we take it from here?

In that timeless raga of childbirth, women perform birth. Their bodies and rhythms are the space upon which birth’s stories, birth’s emotions, birth’s traumas and birth’s joys are enacted. Birth is, perhaps, not a spectator sport. But in its chants, incantations, rhythms and ragas, in its labouring and heaving, the mother raga reveals the webs of maternal experience and maternal stories. Please, come in, it says. You’re an honoured guest. And we welcome your stories.