Monthly Archives: December 2011

(pace Shel Silverstein)

I’ve been (re)reading the poems in Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.  Originally published in 1974, the book brings me back to my childhood, and to the many happy hours I spent in the magical world of poetry – not only Silverstein’s poetry, but also that of Canadian icon, Dennis Lee. Both have remarkable insight into the thoughtworlds of children, into what made us laugh, think, smile. Who, once they’d first heard it , could possibly forget “Alligator Pie” (also published in 1974) ? Or “True Story”? Or “The Faithful Jelly Donut” ?  Or even “Helping,” immortalized on the 1972 album, Free to Be, You and Me?

But this week I found myself drawn to another poem: “The Loser”. Perhaps it was because my son found it so entertaining. Perhaps it was because the image so adeptly and effectively turns Rodin’s Thinker on its head (and yes, that bad pun is intended) .

And perhaps because it tugs at the kinds of things that interest me most: the relationship between body, mind and self and how that plays itself out in the lived experiences of everyday folks.

Western philosophy has put much stock in the mind, in the development of the intellect as the source of the self. Descartes is usually trotted out as the exemplar of this approach: the only thing that is certain, states this eternal skeptic, is that we think. Nothing else can be considered true. We think, we exist. Nothing could be more simple. The beautiful symmetry of that statement has had profound resonance with society as a whole. We place an incredible value on the development of the intellect. The diseases we most fear, here in the west, are those that impair the intellect, at least as it is normatively understood: mental illness, dementia.

These are sufferings that threaten our very understandings of ourselves as thinking beings. They threaten our ability to understand ourselves as innately superior to the animals over which we should, according to the bible, have dominion. Today, it is not tuberculosis or cancer or AIDS that we fear – those diseases which haunt the work of Susan Sontag – it is, rather, those diseases of the mind which appear most threatening, troubling our imaginations and fuelling our fears.

But Silverstein reminds us that the head is not only the brain: it also contains the eyes – the mirrors that reflect the moral beauty of our inner selves even as they allow us to inhabit the worlds of others; and the ears – resonating chambers that bring sound to our senses; the mouth – that orifice so well suited to the development of young children, who sample the world through taste and texture.

All of these senses – sight, taste, sound – live in Silverstein’s  “rock”. The head stores all of these sensory experiences even as it provides a safe cavity for the mind. But what about that other sense, touch? Touch might be nominally located in the fingertips, but we can touch and be touched anywhere. Though it might be one site of touch, the head is not the sensory centre for touch. And, as Luce Irigaray (and others) remind us, touch is that which undoes the distance between self and other. When one touches, one is, simultaneously, touched.

During the eighteenth century, this idea manifested itself in the form of sensibility, that nervous quality that enabled empathy and a recognition of the plight of others. But sensibility could also very easily go awry, as Diderot observed in his radical Le rêve de d’Alembert.

Nervous disorders, diagnosed through a plethora of psychic and somatic symptoms, were fuelled by lives of immoderation, excess, over-stimulation. Debauchery, overeating, lack of sleep, lack of exercise…all of these could weaken the nervous system. But nervous disorders were also understood to be hereditary, thus threatening not only individuals, but also family lines and, more problematically, concepts of nation and national identity.

Lives of moderation, in contrast, balanced the faculty of touch with the rational power of the mind, in the process ensuring good health for all. We hear very similar recommendations from medical professionals today: lives lived in moderation are healthy lives. While passions are necessary, reason must govern them or the whole system is threatened with chaos.

But the imaginary worlds of Shel Silverstein and Dennis Lee celebrate the unpredictable, the excessive, the magical, the non-linear. In their worlds, anything is possible. If you imagine it, it is so. In “losing” one’s head, one opens up possibilities for new ways of being, awakening to sensory faculties that reside not only in the head, but all over the body. Where might we go from here?

“If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!”
(Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends, 9)


A guest post by Jess Khouri.




I was recently re-examining a story from September of this year: the story of American Apparel’s “booty-ful” plus size model search, Nancy Upton, and her fantastic photo entries that spoke loudly about current social stereotypes and common assumptions surrounding fat. In the summer, American Apparel put on a contest, where the public could vote. American Apparel used offensive language stating they were looking for “plus size” models who were “booty-ful,” who “needed a little extra wiggle room” in their clothes, and who wanted to be the next “XLent model.”  Nancy Upton, rightly offended by the language they were using, submitted an entry with a series of photos in which she displayed herself eating fried foods, covered in ranch sauce, and smothered in desserts. The photos, which can be seen on her tumblr, placed first. Unfortunately, American Apparel denied her the opportunity to be the “XLent” face of the company, claiming she made a mockery of the contest.

Upton’s Photo’s are actually an excellent commentary on fat stereotypes and simultaneously on diet culture.

Nancy Upton embodies the fat stereotype of “glutton” and “overeater” by displaying her (often naked) body eating, covered in, or covered by fried or sweet “fatty” foods. In her photos, she becomes a living embodiment of how society has come to view fat bodies. By submitting these photos, she not only challenges the offensive contest, and generally offensive company of American Apparel as a whole, but challenges negatives views on fat as well. She comments that her friend came over to take pictures of her and she “just couldn’t stop eating.”

Her photo submissions made me wonder: what happens when we become the living embodiment of what you see? What happens when we embody exactly what it is you’re thinking about us? Why are people so offended by her pictures when she is only embodying popular discourses surrounding fat?

As Upton embodies “the overeater” stereotype, and in certain photos actually animalizes herself as “pig” —  a common trope for fat women — she forces  discomfort in the viewers of her pictures. She is forcing them to come face to face with their own judgements, their own biases against fat.

This is how you see me. This is what you think I am. This is how all fat people are.

Playing in to the belief that every fat person can and should be thin, Upton swims in a tub of ranch dressing, as if to say, so being fat is my own fault right? Upton’s photos caused so much resistance from American Apparel because they not only challenged the offensive contest, but also brought to centre stage the fat-phobic attitudes that saturate retail culture, and specifically American Apparel, who previously stated that people over a size 10 “are not our demographic.” As a company, American Apparel has demonstrated that it is uncomfortable with Upton showing them exactly what it is they think of fat people.

This is what happens when we throw their stereotypes back at them.

Resistance. Defensiveness. They are almost…offended. Offended?

No one likes to be brought face to face with their own biases and prejudices. This is what Upton is forcing. She forces you to look, to examine, and to think. Is this how I see fat people?

My favourite photos of Upton, in which she uses only a pie to cover herself, also shows that fat can be sexy. Fat bodies are so often viewed as asexual, as bodies that are disgusting and can’t possibly be perceived as attractive. Upton sexualizes herself in many photos, to show that fat can and should be sexy. Fat is sexy!

Upton’s photos call for a rethinking of fat. Not only does she want to smash stereotypes by embodying them for all to see, she wants to rethink fatness and eating. Pie and fried chicken, and ice cream, should all be things that people can eat freely and without judgment. Stop using “health” as a guise for your fat phobia. Not many people can say they looked at Upton’s photos and thought, that’s unhealthy. Rather, what Upton’s photos likely caused, were fat phobic thoughts of gluttony, disgust, and unattractiveness, exactly what I assume she was aiming for.

To end on a positive note, Upton received a lot of support for her photos and was voted to number one. I like to think people understood her message, understood that American Apparel was and still is resistant to fat people, and they too believed that society needs a radical readjustment in its views on fatness.



My students and I have spent countless hours ruminating over images found in historical anatomy atlases.

Skin hanging, pulled off the body, limbs arranged in artistic positions; muscles, tendons, and ligaments floating in the air; a curiously modest yet coy mother-to-be, her belly a blossoming flower, her pubis hidden carefully behind a circling vine. I see a bent arm curled around a book , its muscles carefully delineated; and in another image, a pregnant uterus hacked violently from a female body, thighs cut to resemble cuts of beef. These anatomical images,  Thomas Laqueur reminds us, offer ways of seeing. They give us insight not into the body, but into the way the body was seen and understood by the artist.

My students know how to identify basic body parts. They are comfortable with the essentials of female and male reproductive system. They have grown up with anatomy classes, high school health classes, and before that, with the anatomy drawings in the World Book Encyclopedia. How I loved these drawings as a child. Transparent plastic pages that allowed an eager reader to superimpose the muscles over the bones, and the veins over the muscles. There they were, the insides of the body all efficiently organized for my viewing pleasure.

The World Book body was, if I remember correctly, rather androgynous. I certainly don’t remember any sex organs. Like the anatomy drawings of centuries past, it, too, represented a way of seeing.

If reproductive systems were included in the anatomy drawings I viewed as a teenager and young adult (after my World Book years), those drawings were of male bodies, with the female reproductive system included helpfully as an inset. These are the images that still grace the walls of the Science Building in which I work.

But even these drawings don’t tell the full story of reproduction. I don’t remember seeing a fetus inside, for example.  And yet, most historical anatomy drawings and models of women include not only her reproductive system, but that system in full flower, complete with developing fetus. In some instances, and I think here of William Hunter’s still controversial drawings, the woman recedes entirely, leaving only the fetus visible. Hunter’s way of seeing moved from the holistic image of blossoming bellies, mother and child common to earlier anatomists, to a dismembering of the female reproductive body, mother-to-be as a slab of flesh carefully carved into pieces.

But what we didn’t focus on in our investigations were the people within the bodies. And it was only in our final weeks of the term, this year,  that we took some time to stop and consider the humanity of the dead body. Who were the people inside these bodies? Who gave their lives so that we might see? And what responsibilities might we owe to these people?

Enter Douglas R. Reifler. Reifler teaches a class called “Reflections on Gross Anatomy” in  his medical school. It’s a class designed to bring medical students closer to the bodies upon which they work. Bringing the cadaver to life is a way of bridging the great divide – that space between patient as human and patient as tissue. (Reifler, “I actually don’t mind the bone saw: narratives of gross anatomy,” Literature and Medicine  15.2 (1996): 183-199).

And, for Reifler’s students, it seems to be transformative. Students engage in conversations with their cadavers, asking them to reveal their (imagined) life stories, and writing letters to them. “I saw and touched your heart,” one student says, drawing on the poignant symbolism of care, love, generosity, and belonging even as she stresses the heart’s primary life giving function: it pumped blood that her cadaver might live. This same student emphasizes the insides of her cadaver’s eyes – mirrors to the soul, these “amazing organs … allowed you to see.” (Reifler 1996, 192)

And so, with my students, we undertook a similar journey – a journey of corporeal dignity, respect and generosity in which we acknowledged our debts to those who had died so that we might see. To the humans who had lived inside the bodies we had assessed through our own critical gaze.

I saw your heart. You touched my soul. Thank you for showing us a new way to see.