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‘Body Projects’ and Shame

Updated: Feb 15


Photo Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan (no this is not photoshop, haters, I know my angles, did enhance though, and no, not the boobs, the image quality, haters)


An audio version can be heard on YouTube and Soundcloud.


In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower the protagonist Lauren Olamina overcompensates for her sense of unworthiness, driving her to perform a sort of self-assured superiority. We see this most clearly in Lauren’s relationship with Zahra.


While both Lauren and Zahra are Black women, there was a power imbalance between the two because of Lauren’s more privileged location which put her in closer proximity to whiteness. Although both women were poor and of the same community, Lauren had access to more resources. She was educated and raised in a two-income household by parents who held positions as leaders, educators, and professors. Zahra on the other hand was a former street-involved poor woman whose mother had sold her off to a man in exchange for money. Lauren was a community organizer and teacher, even in her youthful age. Zahra, a stay-at-home mom, was married to a misogynistic and controlling polygamist husband. Lauren could read and write, while Zahra was taught to do so by Lauren. There were clear power differentials that favoured Lauren. For these reasons, she had grown up never taking Zahra seriously.


Despite the advantages that Lauren enjoyed because of her privileged position, she was also plagued by insecurity and jealousy because of Zahra. Zahra reminded Lauren of her own inadequacies. Throughout the novel, Lauren laments Zahra’s hyperfeminine beauty in comparison to her own androgynous features. As the eldest of all boys, Lauren had internalized the stereotype that women, femmes, and the feminine were weak and men and the masculine, stronger, more well-protected. “I intend to go out posing as a man when I go,” says Lauren regarding venturing outside of her community for the first time, onto what is described as the dangerous highways of California (138).


Throughout much of the story, Lauren passes as a man. As she described, “We’re like that, we Olamina’s-tall, sturdy, fast-growing people. I’m still the tallest” (104). Zahra, on the other hand, is short, petite, and curvy. As Lauren noted, Zahra was able to fit into Lauren’s youngest brothers’ shirts and jeans (170-1). According to Lauren, Zahra was always “the best-looking woman in the neighborhood” (186). “Zahra attracts enough of the wrong kind of attention with all her clothes on” (204-5). “She was a beautiful woman, and I would never be beautiful-which didn’t bother me. Boys had always seemed to like me. But Zahra’s looks grabbed male attention” (168), pointing to patriarchy’s deliberate use in setting women up against each other in these such dynamics. Here, Octavia Butler is addressing shame tied to unrealistic beauty expectations, which can trigger insecurities that get in the way of women’s relationships.


 

Beauty industries finesse our insecurities as women (Rice, 2013). Women’s studies Professor Carla Rice (2013) says that young girls as young as age six express some form of dissatisfaction with their bodies.


Carla Rice (2013) and communications professor Kathleen LeBesco (2013) maintain that women and girls face significant pressure to conform to beauty standards, approaching their bodies as a project; what they call “beauty projects.” Rice (2013) identifies the following four beauty projects: 1) the weight project; 2) the hair project; 3) the skin project; and 4) the breast project (see also, LeBesco, 2013; Odette, 2013). For Anderson (2013) our “body-centric” cultures mean that we view our obsession with weight, skin colour, hair, breasts, and now, butts (self-drag), lips, vaginas, perfect skin (read: no acne/blemishes), etc.- as projects.


Skin Project

According to Evelynn Nakano Glenn (2009) “colorism is an issue for intragroup and intergroup inequality as lighter-skinned members of racial minorities enjoy higher average levels of education, income, and occupational status than darker-skinned members of society” (Glenn, 2009: 166). Black and other women of colour internalize these messages.


In, Beginning Again from her book An American Story Debra Dickerson (2003), a Black military woman, candidly shares how deployment in Asia for two years made her aware of “liberal concepts like internalized oppression, self-hatred, and false consciousness” (70). Dickerson (2003) writes, “I knew I suffered from all three […] I felt silly. How could I hate black people? If black people were no good, then I was no good. My mother, my sisters, strangers on the street. That couldn’t be. I had a lot more thinking to do, but the more I lived, the more all my old assumptions were crumbling” (71). These themes that Dickerson raises have historical roots.


According to Rice (2013), “during the 17th, 18th and 19th century, the superiority of white over dark was scientifically proclaimed, as white Europeans needed a convincing justification for slavery and colonization” (393). Dark skin became associated with evil, ugliness, disease, and deformities (Rice, 2013). While white skin was associated with purity, cleanliness, youthfulness, beauty, and empowerment (Rice, 2013). Because of this, skin colour becomes a project, whereby many Black and other people of colour associate lighter skin with beauty, and as such, want to attain whiter skin. To attain fairer skin, they might use chemicals like hydroquinone used in skin lightening creams to bleach their skin tone. This process of lightening one’s skin is also known as “a technology of the self, aimed at modifying one’s body and other aspects of the self to attain a higher state of happiness, purity, wisdom and perfection,” as Glenn (2009: 130) identifies.


Hair Project

According to Rice (2013) “an estimated 80 percent of African American women in the U.S straighten their hair,” mainly through the use of chemical relaxers that are toxic, which damage hair, and burn scalps. They don’t go through this treacherous process because they enjoy it, but rather, because they have learned that it serves a purpose.


According to Verna Keith (2009) “the same belief we have towards black hair today is no different than the ideological rationale for slavery. Its foundations are deeply connected to anti-blackness that defines the black body as barbaric, savage, ugly, and evil” (27). In recent years, Black girls have been suspended and sent home from school for wearing their hair natural. Black women have faced disciplinary action from their employers for wearing their hair naturally, including the U.S military. Black hair is made out to be a crime, an infraction. Black hair in its natural state is viewed as resistance, as militant and radical (Rice, 2013). This makes Black hair political, even when Black women aren't trying to be political.


Weight Project

Both Carla Rice (2013) and Kathleen LeBesco (2013) critique weight as a project. In How Do You Fuck a Fat Woman? Kate Harding (2008) addresses the ways in which fat women are made to feel undesirable. Harding and others like LeBesco (2013) argue that the terms “abject,” “undesirable,” and “diseased/disorder” have come to represent fat bodies, resulting in stigma, discrimination, barriers to employment, body dysmorphia, anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, and suicidality.


Breast Project

Pretty self-explanatory. The bigger the breasts, the more desirable, or so says society. As a woman with larger VERY NATURAL breasts, I can attest that having big breasts is not enough, they need to be perky or says society.


 

Lauren and Zahra remind us that these so-called beauty standards have concrete consequences; the impossibility of attaining those standards draws shame that distances us. What we find here is another mythical binary; white, thin, and able-bodied represents beauty and pride, while Black, dark, fat, and disabled represent ugliness and shame. With the force and intensity of shame, these scripts move us to think, behave, and perform in counterproductive and unhealthy ways. This is linked to cultures of perfectionism and ideas around purity. The myth tells us that if you avoid failure to attain perfection, you will also avoid shame. Ironically, this pressure always still draws shame because failure and shame are inevitable. Meaning that without even knowing or ever intending to, Zahra would strike shame in Lauren. Check out Aversions and Shame for more on those dynamics.


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Until next time, in solidarity.

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