Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

3rd Web Event: Bounded Bodies

MargaretRachelRose's picture

This morning I ate 5 sugar cookies for breakfast. Immediately after I washed down the last cookie with some lukewarm English Breakfast tea, I began carefully planning the rest of my meals for the day, excluding anything sugary, whilst reminding myself that I exercise twice a week (but that’s enough to keep off the weight, right?). This worried, calculating, self-shrinking mentality accompanied my logic for skipping meals in middle school, telling my mom that the cafeteria food too hard to chew with my braces so, yeah, of course, Mom – I had eaten when I got home when, in reality, I hadn’t.

It’s nearly 2014. Never before has there been a time more centered on self-care and abolishing the extreme, inaccurate mass-media portrayals of women. Despite this, though, how can women still have these self-defeating, body shrinking thoughts?  

Some Huffington Post statistics have taught me that women experience an average of 13 negative thoughts about their body each day, while 97% of women admit to having at least one “I hate my body moment” each day.

And women are bound quite literally by their clothes. Skin-itching, thigh and stomach suffocating, sequined, short, skinny clothes. So much so that the damage is left irrevocably on their skin with grooves in their shrunken skin from skinny jeans and bras. Only 5% of American women naturally have the body type advertisements portray as ideal.

Women are bound by stifling stereotypes. They are reduced to small – or rather, thin – meal cooking, house cleaning objects or objects of sexual desire. 50% of commercials directed towards women mention physical attractiveness, and the average adolescent views over 5,000 advertisements that mention attractiveness annually. Women are bound by gender-biased inequality, self-regulated speech, and health and self-worth compromising social standards of beauty. They have to “fit” into what their role in society is, and what’s more—physically fit into clothes that are designed to slim their bodies and standardizes their appearance, leaving shrunken marks on underappreciated skin.

Women are not bodies that take up space.

Lily Myers, a Wesleyan University student, performed a slam poem called “Shrinking Women.” In her powerful piece she says that women in her family are shrinking. Myers slams the divide between the men and women of her family. She says that as much men emit, women absorb. Women absorb until they become a starved, weary shell of obligation, submission, and suppression. In Myers’s family, this is especially true, as Myers describes her mother’s self-restricted diet in proportion her father and brother’s ever-increasing waistlines.

Feminism today is not a replication of the politically active, movement charged, outward progression of Wendy Brown’s second wave glory days. Mourning her days of political activity grimly illuminates the lack of the out-on-the-streets action today. Myers is mourning the generations of women in her family they have given over their space to men; she is not mourning in a grief-stricken way, but in a way where she is unbinding the female figures in her family from the obligation of shrinking themselves to accommodate men. She is unbinding them from their submissive gender role. So they no longer shrink away from eating, from speaking, from emoting.

Women can no longer be bound to filter themselves in speech and in action, can no longer be bound to retreat from the space they have been trying to claim as their own since the 60s (and far before that), can no longer be bound to a thin, desirous, mainstream image of beauty.

Judith Butler believes that, “We are something other than ‘autonomous’ in such a condition, but that does not mean that we are merged or without boundaries. It does mean, however, that when we think about who we ‘are’ and seek to represent ourselves, we cannot represent ourselves as merely bounded beings, for the primary others who are past for me not only live on in the fiber of the boundary that contains me (one meaning of ‘incorporation’), but they also haunt the way I am, as it were, periodically undone and open to becoming unbounded.”

We cannot represent ourselves as merely bounded beings. Butler fears that incorporating too much of another person into one’s identity cuts into the space in that person’s identity for autonomy. This periodic self-assessing is haunting and undoing for beings—people, women—that are already bound by other structures of power—in their mind and in their identity. In Myers’ poem, there is a line that goes as such: “when you sit across from someone enough, you pick up their habits.” We as humans are inherently what we see in others and what we experience in every moment. Decisions, conversations, moods, events, relationships, past experiences, repeated occurrences and so on are all agents in our identity.  We cannot represent ourselves as merely bounded beings. For Myers, she is bound by a predisposition in her family to be self-regulating, as she learned to absorb while her brother learned to emit. 

Repeatedly and stiflingly women are taught, unconsciously or inherently, that they are meant to be self-regulated and self-suppressing by nature. When Myers wanted to ask a question in class, she felt that she was taking up space in class, claiming time out of everyone’s time to dissolve her confusion. She said “sorry” before each question asked. She was bound by her fear of being judged, belittled, or mocked. In a space of academia, Myers didn’t feel entitled to voice her confusions, despite that notion that this is supposedly the day and age for women to excel in academics, obtain leadership roles and feel empowered in structures they were previously excluded from. Myers’s fear of taking up space, passed down to from her mother, must be unbound. 

“Inheritance is accidental,” Myers said. Future generations, more daughters and sisters and cousins to come, will continue to be bound to this image that their place in society is to be slim, husband-serving, speech filtering, good mannered mothers. Unless those images are unbound.

Expanding, revising, and unbinding the definition and social standards of beauty, gender, sexuality, and identity for women is a facet of feminism in today’s generation. Making this information accessible through social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr is where the political movement lies today. Sharing articles in News Feeds and on blogs is a way of taking up space. Intellectual, public space. Women still have tried to shrink themselves from conventionally male dominated spaces, they need a space to advocate for the body that is still not treated with equal respect. Although these are not the streets that second wave feminists marched on, these are the same government, social, and domestic structures. The technological front is space in other’s minds for women to take up with new definitions and issues of gender identity, sexuality, marriage rights, gender violence, etc. We are taking up space in ignorant and curious minds alike in order to unbind the conventional, generational wrongdoings of a time that should be long past.   



Judith Butler, Chapter 2: “Violence, Mourning, Politics.” Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 2004. 19-49.

Lily Myers’s slam poem “Shrinking Women” in the video

“Media Influence.” Rader Programs. Rader Programs, 2013. Web.


Polly's picture

The physical experience of women

I really liked how you were able to bring together different ways women are "bound" or constrained, physically and otherwise. I had never though about how we are, as you say, "self-suppressing" both when we silence ourselves in front of others and when we feel the insane pressure to keep our bodies small and contained. Not only are women supposed to "shrink" down into an impossible, unhealthy ideal size, we are also expected to simply take up less space, which comes through with body language (like how, stereotypically, a man vs. a woman sits in a room).

I also appreciated that you pointed out that in society today, there are very present efforts to get rid of the skinny ideal and media portrayal of women, as well as a movement toward health, yet the pressure to follow that ideal is still incredibly strong.

Anne Dalke's picture

Self shrinking, self-inflicted

In this essay, you make our shared topic of "binding" quite literal, and quite visual, showing the multiple ways in which women's bodies are bound, bounded, shrinking, suppressed. As juliah observes, Lily Myer's poem makes this account quite vivid, "slams" it home. And I would add that what is most striking here are the ways in which this binding is self-inflicted.

juliah pushes back on the implication of your essay that contemporary feminism is stagnant, you want to speak to that concern? How do you see the relationship between the politically active movement Wendy Brown laments, and the current focus on social media outlets, where you locate today's feminist movement? Does the contemporary project seem to you more "bound" to individual bodies, and their manipulation, less attentive to larger social forces? Might you say more about this....?

jalal's picture

thank you very much for this

thank you very much for this useful informations

juliah's picture

Common thought

While the approach we take to this topic is varies, and I don't focus on women's bodies in the media as extensively as you do, I really enjoyed reading another perspective on the body through a lens of trying to unbind feminism. Your weaving of Lily Myer's slam poem into Butler's argument was, in my opinion, really inspired. I totally see the connection, and I really appreciated the anecdote.  Going on from that, I enjoyed when you touched on "inheritance" and how binding it can be. I was a bit perplexed when you said that "Feminism today is not a replication of the politically active, movement charged, outward progression of Wendy Brown’s second wave glory days." While yes, it is not a replication, I was concerned that the implication you're making is that our generation's feminism is stagnant and unmotivated. Otherwise, I really found where you took your discussion on bodies in terms of unbinding feminism fascinating. It's so interesting how we can take a similar line of thought and come up with such different association. 

ALSO, this blog goes along with a lot of what Lily Myer was saying, as well as our overall topics.