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On Bodily Non-Problems with a Name
We are creating concepts for entirely benign, painless, harmless bodily variations—and with them, a lucrative market. This “hermeneutical baggage,” as we might call it, serves nobody. Save capitalism.
I look in the mirror: rib flare, I think to myself, for the first time ever. This because of a social media post I saw a few days ago, of a small white woman smiling in a tight white tee shirt. A very slight bulge under each of her breasts had been assiduously circled in red. “Does anyone else have this problem?” Was the gist of her question to the group on Facebook.
Instantly many people recognized their own bodies, and responded in the affirmative. Their comments were supportive, and some said not to worry about it—while others recommended minimizing this (already) minimal bulge via certain cuts of shirt or core-strengthening exercises. (Fine, if that’s your thing, but for this purely aesthetic reason?) Others of us, me included, learned that our bodies had a “flaw” of which we were previously blissfully unaware. Now I can’t unsee the shape of my own torso.
And this got me to wondering: how often do we name bodily non-problems—states of the body that are entirely benign, painless, and have no discernible import for anyone, in being a purely aesthetic variant? For just about every body part, head to toe, I could think of such a label: widow’s peak; eye bags; crow’s feet; geographic tongue; turkey neck; side boob; uniboob; skin tags; FUPA; strawberry legs; cankles. And so on.
And who does this labeling and naming serve, in the long term? My hunch is: nobody, save for capitalism.
Betty Friedan, famously, wrote of “the problem with no name,” in her trenchant if regrettably middle-class white woman-centric manifesto, The Feminine Mystique. She thereby named a real problem facing some, though not all, women, in the form of boredom, depression, and ennui due to being excluded from the workforce, and confined to the unpaid care work long expected of well-to-do white wives and mothers. (Meanwhile, many women of color had no such luxury, and worked for the duration in exploitative and vastly underpaid forms of labor.) More recently, the philosopher Miranda Fricker has coined a general name for this kind of gap in our collective conceptual resources: a “hermeneutical injustice,” which prevents subordinated or oppressed people from naming a social experience which they have a strong interest in naming.
Fricker’s leading example is that of sexual harassment: before women had this concept, they had much more trouble stating what was happening to them in the workplace. (Though there were words used among friends, like “handsy,” to identify problematic male behavior.) The advent of this concept, following the consciousness-raising and emotional labor and legal activism of a group of women including Carmita Wood, a woman of color who was victimized at Cornell University in the early 1970s, allowed for solidarity and an improved understanding of this insidious, typically misogynistic, practice. At least as importantly, it allowed for legal action and, ultimately, material compensation. Another powerful example offered by Fricker of rectifying a hermeneutical injustice by naming a genuine problem: the coinage “post-partum depression,” which enabled many people after birth to feel seen, and heard, and seek support, rather than regarding themselves as broken and as defective mothers.
But what we have on our hands here, when it comes to “rib flares” and the like, is the inverse of a hermeneutical gap and a subsequent corrective. We have a non-problem being identified and proliferated via social media. Call it “hermeneutical baggage,” since these concepts don’t serve anyone—at least not in the long term—save for those invested in capitalist racketeering.
True, the original poster above might have felt less alone, and more solidarity, when her non-problem was named by other group members. But much the same effect could be achieved without this naming practice: other people could just as easily have said, hey, my body is shaped that way too! I don’t see a problem. I see a torso with undulations.
What’s more, naming bodily non-problems in this way reinforces and perpetuates a sense that a woman’s body is not allowed to protrude in any direction save for our breasts, hips, and butt—up to a point, and no further, in a classic expression of fatphobia. It furthers the gross sense that we should all be smooth, and small, and white, and all the same as one another. It feeds into the lucrative markets that offer so many absurdly false promises: to reverse aging, to smooth wrinkles, to minimize pores, to shrink fat, and to alter the shape of our very skeletons. None of which has exactly a great track record in terms of evidence-based solutions for, again, these non-problems which don’t actually need treatment or amelioration.
I’m not writing this to shame anyone who has named their bodily features in these ways. (And I’m arguably treading a fine line here myself, in naming this naming, unless the use/mention distinction can rescue me.) The point is to criticize a practice, not the individuals understandably engaged in it. But maybe we can, should do differently—and better—in ceasing to speak about our bodies in these ways. Maybe we can, should refuse to be consumers in the subsequent markets that work by Jessica DeFino and Tressie McMillan Cottom has brilliantly taught us to be alert to, especially in view of their racist as well as fatphobic, misogynist, and ageist exploitation. (As McMillan Cottom put it as an honored guest in a class I was teaching recently on her work: “Throw a dart at the globe and you will likely find a place where skin-lightening cream and blonde hair dye can be bought, even if there is no clean water.”) Instead of “embracing our flaws,” we might decline to think of ourselves in ways that are simultaneously reductive and potentially all-consuming—as well as potent fodder for late-stage capitalist profiteering.
That’s the dream, anyway. We could just be unshrinking.
Reader, have you too noticed this practice of naming bodily non-problems? Are you similarly sick of it? Or do you see an upside?