Category Archives: FASHIONING THE HUMAN

Cruel (Tribal) Summer

This image from the most recent New York-based Pixie Market email features a thin, presumably white model with a hipster headdress and a "tribal" bathing suit called "The Eagle Has Landed," in a print dubbed "Tigerlily," I'm going to guess named after the British author J.M. Barrie's "Indian princess" from Peter Pan. The graphic patterns that surround her appear to reference ikat dyed or African wax print fabrics, which have their own transnational circuits of circulation and consumption under the shadow of colonialism.

This image from the most recent New York-based Pixie Market email features a thin, presumably white model with a hipster headdress and a "tribal" bathing suit called "The Eagle Has Landed," in a print dubbed "Tigerlily." The graphic patterns that surround her appear to reference ikat dyed or African wax print fabrics, which trace another transnational circuit of production and consumption under the shadow of colonialism. (Having originated in Indonesia, the material was exported to England and the Netherlands, then exported again to West Africa, in the shortest version of the story.)

Calling Native Appropriations and My Culture Is Not a Trend! It’s 2:30 a.m. and as I’m sleepily-anxiously editing a section of one of my chapters, I received this in my inbox. I’m going to come back to this later when I’m more coherent (I probably shouldn’t be editing my manuscript in this condition), but for now, let us again consider how the term “tribal” is both referentially empty (there is no “there,” no truth to be found in this collage and its lumping together of distinct peoples under the “tribal”) and at the same time overflowing with multiple forms of alienation that often forcibly estrange a people from themselves, from history, from life. To be made “tribal” via these forms of alienation is far too often to be “out of time,”* uncivilized, antimodern, backwards, dead or might-as-well-be-dead.

What does it mean to take note of these “minor” events –a presumably white girl in a most certainly kitschy headdress, for instance– that normalize these histories of estrangement, these forms of alienation? It is not simply to refuse contact or cultural and monetary exchange (though sometimes it is important to do so), but instead, to recall that these histories and forms, as well as their effects, are still alive, and still devastating.

* Having looked at the Pixie Market site this morning, only to discover that the description for the bathing suit names the print “Tigerlily,” the notion that “Indians” are understood as “out of time” is particularly resonant. Peter Pan‘s British author J.M. Barrie located his “Indian princess,” Tiger Lily, in Never Never Land, a no-zone of both temporal distance and arguably infantile stasis. (Though I’m working with my vague memory of the Disney animated film here!) As a commenter pointed out, this combination of “tribal” elements would appear unique to “America,” but it is also a “transnational America,” implicating interconnected webs of unequal exchange.

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Friday I’m In Love (With Your Blog)

I completely love this drawing from Hark! A Vagrant, a series of historical comics by K. Beaton, in large part because my girlfriend has tried on at least three of these looks (sometimes in the space of a week). Also, historical comics! Oh, Internet, you make working on my manuscript revisions, tapping away on this computer for sixteen hours a day, slightly less painful. Here is more proof of your glory!

There’s such smart commentary going on right now about Lady Gaga and whose gender and sexual deviance gets to be understood as performance “art,” and whose is read through racial or otherwise Other-ed “truth.” Isabel The Spy observes, “lady gaga is allowed to play at being grotesque because it’s understood that she is making a choice to be grotesque; fat, non-white, or otherwise atypical bodies already belong to the realm of the grotesque. the choice is made for them. whether it’s as unfuckable (fat women, women with visible disabilities) or inherently sexualized (black and Latina women) or some weird combination of fuckable but not sexual (asian women) or just grotesque and unworthy (trans women).”

This (and the continuing debates raging across the fashion blogosphere about cultural appropriation) reminds me all over again of Minh-Ha’s citation of what Nirmal Puwar describes as “the universal empty point,” which white female bodies are able to occupy precisely because their bodies are racially unmarked: “[Thus] they can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized dress without suffering the ‘violence of revulsion.’”

Revisiting the question of “vintage color,” Jenny at Fashion for Writers shows Beyonce some mad love. In it, she cites a post called “Retro and Race” from Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing and another called “Retro Styles and Gender Play” by Latoya Peterson at Racialicious. I’m just gonna add that Jenny looks smashing in high-cut playsuits! I’m sort of wondering now if I should send her my red suede leather shorts…

Tiger Beatdown’s critique of the recent New York Times Magazine profile of M.I.A. is epic: “Is it really that surprising that a performer, signed to a major label, wants attention? Is it surprising or exceptional that such a person has money? Is it surprising that a person subjected to constant scrutiny from millions of people has crafted a public face, a version of herself that she puts on when she’s being observed by strangers that is noticeably different and more suited to mass consumption than the one she wears when she’s alone, or with her husband and child, or with her best friends? And: If you were trying to get attention at all costs, if you were coming up with a fake personality that was guaranteed to garner acceptance and approval from the largest possible number of people, would ‘radical woman of color allied with militant groups’ really be the one you’d pick?” Also check this piece from Change.org called “Who Gets to Define ‘Sell Out’? MIA Meets The New York Times.” Seriously, of the two I pick MIA over the newspaper that featured Judith Miller’s parroting of the Bush administration’s claims that Iraqi WMDs threatened us all.

I’ve also been following The Seventeen Magazine Project, an experiment by Pennsylvanian high school senior Jamie Kelles to spend one month “living according to the gospel of Seventeen Magazine.” Well-written and wry, I’m enjoying her often bemused efforts to comport herself like the supposedly “normal” American teenaged girl found (or more accurately perhaps created) in this magazine. Here’s her rules: “I will read the entire June/July issue of Seventeen magazine from cover to cover. Every day I will utilize at least one ‘beauty tip’ (hair/makeup/skincare/whathaveyou) and one fashion tip. I will follow all diet and exercise tips provided in the issue to a T. I will participate in every activity recommended by the magazine (i.e. host a fright night, score your hottest summer hookup ever, be confident in a bikini, etc.) I will apply for every single ‘freebie‘ offered by the magazine, every day. I will consume all media recommended by the magazine at least once. (books/movies/music) I will hang all provided pictures/posters of ‘hot guys’ in my living environment.”

A Dedicated Follower of Fashion notes that the all-too-common fashion terms “tribal” and “ethnic” are referentially empty (“What exactly are they describing?”), while also politically overburdened.

Meanwhile, Jessica Simpson claims that filming her VH1 series The Price of Beauty felt like “missionary work.” This may seem a far-fetched and ludicrous claim, but it does follow from historical precedents set by Western women journeying into “darkest interiors” to both study and “civilize” native peoples through the documentation and reform of indigenous corporeal and sartorial practices.

Racialicious’s Latoya Peterson ponders both the myth of “hybrid vigor” and the continuing salience of colonial mappings of beauty and ugliness in her examination of the New York Times‘ article about model-scouting in Brazil. Hysteria! delves further into the uses of anthropological knowledges for such scouting missions. Furthermore, “It’s old news by now that patriarchy, racism and classism work together, but it’s rarely illustrated so clearly: racist hiring practices in the fashion industry both prevent women of color from accessing career opportunities open to white women (which could, potentially, offer a better financial situation) and make white women less likely to view their own exploitation as exploitation (after all, this is an elite field they should be grateful to even be in, right?).”

Julia at A La Garconniere has the coolest and smartest friends ever, dammit. Does she exert some sort of gravitational pull that finds her in the midst of a constellation of awesome people? (She is pals with artist Teresa Chang, maker of the zine Dykes and Their Hair, as well as the women behind American Able.) Here, Julia’s friend Iris Hodgson guest blogs on cultural appropriation and in particular style blogger Gala Darling, whose signature sign-off is “Love Letters and Feather Headdresses, Gala xx.” Good grief. Hodgson points out that, “The hipster headdress is perceived by others as being ‘fierce’ or ‘exotic’ or ‘creative’ or ‘bohemian’ at the same time that Indigenous people who might want to dress similarly would be perceived negatively for doing so.”

Meanwhile, Racialicious correspondent Andrea Plaid tackles the insidious racial politics lurking behind a teacher and principal’s expulsion of a young black girl from an advanced-placement classroom, because “her Afro was making [the teacher] sick.”

From Shake Paper, a tumblr subtitled “Smash the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy,” this smart rebuttal to some of the more familiar responses to critiques of cultural appropriation:

Why, for example, are people of colour speaking English and wearing “western clothes?”, you may ask. In many cases, COLONIZED countries were forced to adopt the culture of the colonizer while their own culture was violently removed. Residential schools, for example, forced indigenous children to speak English, adopt christianity, and were forced to wear European clothes and adopt a European culture. Therefore, it is important to understand the history of colonialism and to understand that what you see as a parallel act of “cultural appropriation,” is really the product of colonialism. To equate those things is to deny the historical and continued violence produced by colonialism, and it is also a huge reflection of privilege.

Forced assimilation does not equal the appropriation and the commodification of another person’s culture. Furthermore, forced assimilation does not have to be as black and white as putting people into residential schools, but it can also be an epistemic and ideologically forced assimilation such as “business suits* = a necessary uniform to gain access into the white collar workforce,” therefore, in turn, what this also produces is the idea that the “native dress” of someone else’s culture is devalued and “uncivilized.” Therefore, in order for a person of colour to have a white collar job, they must then wear a business suit.  We have the social and cultural understanding that “business suits = employment,” but we never interrogate where that comes from and what that means.

Let me just say this,

White supremacy works so that white privilege goes unnoticed.

And on that note, don’t skip out on Julia’s call for critical fashion lovers to be more deliberate and strategic: “i think we, as critical fashion lovers, need to think about and share more productive ways we can challenge oppressive systems when we see them at work, wherever we see them happening. if you have any suggestions, now is the time to share them.” Thoughts? My response, in her comments,

Great post as ever, Julia. I think one of the things we have to do you’re already doing, which is making “fashion” legible as a tangled complex of industrial-capital-state imperatives, underpinned by colonial and imperial structures as well as gender and sexual maps for making meaning, that together operate to determine not just how we as individuals wear our clothes or bodies, but that also dictate how we as social beings are assigned degrees and tiers of value and humanness via our clothes or bodies. The cultural appropriation debates are a perfect example of how these macropolitics are brought to bear upon the micropolitics of a hipster in a headdress. This is hard, hard work, as you know.

A black-clad Asian woman and "critical fashion lover" prepares her Molotov cocktail for the fashion-industrial-state complex.

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LINKAGE: “‘Not Our Demographic’: American Apparel Denies My Existence”

This Gawker-made collage features images of long-haired and half-clad models from American Apparel advertisements.

I am in my early 20’s. I will wear stupid pants. So will just about everyone else who is my age. Stupid pants are an important part of human development. By not catering to the enormous market of plus-sized/fat/whatever young people, American Apparel, the INDUSTRY LEADER in stupid pants (not to mention stupid shirts, stupid shorts and stupid nipple-baring leotard things) is missing out on a lot of money.

What irks me more than their hard-headed stupidity, however, is this insistence that fat people are not “part of their demographic.” What does that even mean? That fat people can’t be hipsters? Trust me, fat people are just as capable of being vapid, superficial and pretentious as any thin person. We can forgo bathing, smoke lots of cigarettes and dress like hobos. I’m verging on morbidly obese (according to the oh-so-legit BMI scale), and I had an ironic “hobos and Mormons”-themed 18th birthday party. Two percent of my ample MacBook Pro harddrive space is taken up by the entire discography and an extensive bootleg collection of Manchester indie gods the Fall. I complain on a regular basis about the negative turn country music took in the 1980’s. I dressed up as Jean-Luc Godard for French class when I was 15 years old. Pretentious and superficial? I’ve been there and back again.

This amazingly awe-inspiring excerpt is from “‘Not Our Demographic’: American Apparel Denies My Existence,” by Lillian Behrendt, who blogs at My Unacceptable Body: A Fat Acceptance Blog. (Hat tip to The Rejectionist.) For the recent Gawker investigations into American Apparel’s hiring practices and standards for employment (including lists of banned garments and shoes), see here for internal e-mails and contracts discussing these. We’d like to add, as Renata Espinosa points out, that many retailers have some version of a dress code (and even a corporeal one) for their employees, and that this is a broader problem of sartorial profiling.

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LINKAGE: “The Lobby for Abu Dhabi, An Essay By Carrie Bradshaw” (Muslimah Media Watch)

The women in Sex and the City 2 enjoy their expensive Abu Dhabi resort with requisite Arab manservant.

Recently, Ms. Bradshaw traveled to the Emirates for a glamorous vacation with a few pals. Here, she recounts her thoughts about her time in Abu Dhabi.

As I sit here in my sparkling new genie shoes, I am in a post-vacation glow. It was easy to become overwhelmed with the glittering luxury of our suite in Abu Dhabi, the cocktails, and the shopping. Upon returning from my trip, I could not help but be overwhelmed with a bit of patriotism. I have always been the greatest fan of this tiny island of Manhattan, but our trip to Abu Dhabi got me to thinking about sexism in the Middle East.

Underneath the burqa of fabulous glamour, we saw a whole lot of oppression of women in Abu Dhabi. Between the drab black and the lowered gazes, gender norms in the Middle East could do with a bit of a makeover. After all, even though we don’t exactly have equality here, at least our oppression can strut down Fifth in couture. I wonder what can change for women in the Middle East. Is oppression a timeless classic, like my Chanel dress, or do we toss it completely, like Charlotte’s paint-stained Valentino? I have a few ideas myself, and these are things that I think can help spin an old classic into a funky modern hit.

— Excerpt from “The Lobby from Abu Dhabi, An Essay by Carrie Bradshaw,” a satire of Sex and The City 2 (2010), by Sara at Muslimah Media Watch. See also the MMW roundtable review of the “orientalist boogaloo” and Latoya Peterson’s Sex and the City, Just Wright, Gender Bonding, and RomCom Fantasy Worlds” at Racialicious.

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Hanky Pancreas: insulin pump accessories and cyborg embodiment

We’re thrilled to present our first Threadbared guest contributor, and long-time interwebz interlocutor, Alana Kumbier. Alana Kumbier is a femmebot, type 1 diabetic, (radical) reference librarian, and super-commuter. She is co-editor of Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, and contributes to Arcades Collaborative, a critical information studies blog. In her free time, Alana performs with The Femme Show and TraniWreck, is a member of the Boston Radical Reference Collective, and co-produces a monthly podcast, Champs Not Chumps.

If you live in the NYC area, and want to see the insulin-pump-burlesque number in person, you can do so this Saturday (June 5), when The Femme Show visits Collect Pond in Brooklyn. If you come, please say hello! I (Alana) ❤ cyborg solidarity!

The "Oyster Soul" insulin pump accessory, featuring a large off-white flower and beaded strands, from the Hanky Pancreas Collection; image at Hanky Pancreas.

My first reaction to Jessica Floeh’s line of insulin pump accessories – cleverly-named Hanky Pancreas – was clear and uncomplicated: those are so pretty and I want them. I imagined myself wearing outfits organized around cascades of shells, feathers, and beads, articulating a personal style concept like urban mermaid, embodying Beach House’s Devotion, or glamorizing my weekend jeans-plus-t-shirt ensemble with elements of burlesque costuming. Knowing that these objects would be anchored by my insulin pump gave the enterprise a sort of steampunk appeal, and this excited me, too (I didn’t immediately recognize the suitability of these designs to shabby-chic, nostalgic Victorian, or popular bridal aesthetics, but looking again, I see they’re there, too). But there’s more at stake in Floeh’s designs than the cultivation of a particular cyborganic aesthetic.

The purpose of Hanky Pancreas accessories seems straightforward: dress up your pump. Or, more to the point: camouflage your robotic pancreas with embellishments – like fake flowers, seashells, feathers and beads – that invoke the feminine, the natural, and the ephemeral. The idea of embellishing one’s pump is a game-changer; doing so in a way that enables an expression of femininity is even more remarkable. Most pump cases, pouches and holsters for adult pump-wearers are designed for function, and little else. With their liberal use of nylon, velcro, and elastic, and their neutral and dark palette, most pump accessories appear to have come from the physical therapist’s clinic, or the paranoid tourist’s luggage. They secure the pump without drawing attention to its existence (and, by extension, to the fact of the wearer’s diabetes). Floeh’s designs pursue a different agenda. In addition to keeping the pump in place, she suggests the holders have affective and transformative potential:

The current collection is for women and represents a series of design solutions that better integrate the machine with the body and mind. By turning medical device into fashion accessory the designs alleviate anxiety, create dynamic communities, and encourage new relationships with medical technology. […] The designs intend to inspire internal change through external change in order to improve overall health.

There’s a lot to unpack here. It may seem that Floeh promises more than an accessory can deliver, but her claims don’t seem so far-fetched when we think about the pump as a nexus for a tangle of (wearer) concerns around gender, sexuality, dis/ability, and personhood. When I went on the pump, my pressing questions weren’t about the pump’s mechanics, or how I’d insert my infusion sets, but about how I’d sleep and have sex, how the pump would work (or not) with dresses and burlesque costumes, and what this would add my mental list of daily diabetes-management responsibilities (i.e., always carry fresh AAA batteries, make sure the reservoir has enough insulin before leaving for work, have spare infusion sets at the office). I relied on advice and support from a queer femme diabetic friend, who helped me articulate connections that made the transition easier: queering diabetes gave me a critical framework for being-diabetic in relation to normalizing social and medical structures, and helped me extend the feelings, thoughts, and politics I’d developed around my queerness to my diabetes: resisting shame and pathologization; making connections across embodied differences/identifications/situations (and committing to an ethic of care as part of this practice); celebrating norm-challenging bodies; and fostering a sex-positive culture in opposition to the dominant cultural tendency to infantalize or de-sexualize people with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

I was also lucky to have studied the history of the U.S. AIDS activist movement, to have read Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” and Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride. I wish I’d read Michelle O’Brien’s “Tracing This Body,” because it’s helpful to think with as we occupy positions in which we’re both resisting and depending upon oppressive systems (e.g., pharmaceutical development, manufacture, and trade; transnational capitalism) and can’t live in accord with a radical politics of purity. All this is to say that when the time came for me to start wearing the pump, I was lucky to have an amazing conceptual-political-emotional toolkit at the ready. This is not the case for the majority of pump-wearers.

A couple of months ago, a friend sent me a link to a BoingBoing post directing readers to an essay by Jane Kokernak. Kokernak writes about how living with the pump has negatively affected her sense of sexual self. For Kokernak, wearing the pump is an inherently un-desirable way of being. She opens with the claim that:

A $6,000 insulin pump with an on-board computer chip is not alluring. Neither is the white mesh adhesive patch on my naked abdomen or the length of nylon tubing that connects the patch to the pump. There is only illness, and there is no way to make that sexy. After several years as a medical device wearer, I know.

Clearly, the privilege of having access to (i.e., affording the health insurance to cover) the pump is diminished by Kokernak’s experience of de-sexualization. The pump also threatened her sense of gendered self, and meant trading one kind of security and wellness for another:

Although the pump offered me better health and the hope of fewer long-term complications from diabetes, wearing it made me feel fragile and also inexplicably obsessed with doubts about myself as a woman.

The pump effectively introduces vulnerability, disruption, insecurity, and loss of sexual self in her experience. Because I know only one type 1, pump-wearing, conventionally-female-gendered, straight diabetic, I don’t know how common Kokernak’s experience is, or which aspects may be shared (or not) among other diabetic women. A blog post Floeh wrote about the rationale for Hanky Pancreas suggests that Kokernak is not alone – and that the pump threatens many women’s ability to maintain their preferred gender presentation. She writes:

My family friend told me that she would even switch back to injections when she wanted to wear a tight dress. Some women don’t place it in their cleavage because of their chest size. And one woman actually got breast enhancement surgery to hide her pump better.

For these women, the pump is a material obstacle to (feminine) gender expression that demands a material solution – it’s not just an issue of affect or subjectivity. In these instances, maintaining a preferred gender means making choices with serious physical consequences. It’s clear that in this world, wearing the pump doesn’t mean re-making gender in ways that seem liberating or transformative. Instead, wearing the pump creates another barrier to embodying an already-impossible ideal (normative) gender.

The practical implications of pump-wearing also play out in the sexual realm. Kokernak draws attention to the ways in which the pump interrupts (and thwarts) her ability to be sexual. While our experiences of transitioning to the pump may have been quite different, her description of the logistical difficulties one encounters while dressing (or undressing) for sex rings true:

Negligees and nudity are impractical, because neither provides much to clip the device to. Clothes and pajamas, on the other hand, have waistbands or pockets, which keep the pump steady during the prelude of kissing and touching. The pump can even be negotiated during the impatient slithering of fingers into nightclothes. If my husband and I lie on our sides, front-to-front, I can clip my pump against my hip. If I’m on my back and Jimmy wants to lay his full length on top of me, I adjust the pump along my waistband toward my back, so the hard case doesn’t press into his abdomen.

These are familiar negotiations. However, I experience them differently because of the way I have sex, and because of my history having queer sex (and safer sex and sex with toys). When a partner and I are having sex, we pause to accommodate (and often laugh about and fumble with) batteries and condoms and buckles and straps – taking a moment to un-tether myself doesn’t feel disruptive in this context. I was surprised, the last time I had sex with a new person, that I didn’t formally introduce him to the infusion site in the way I had with previous partners, because I felt confident that his first encounter with the small piece of plastic and some medical tape at my infusion site wouldn’t ruin the moment. But that’s a hard-earned confidence, and one that derives from my queer crip affinities and experience.

The "Flower Fairy" insulin pump accessory, featuring beaded strands and hanging flowers, by Hanky Pancreas.

If we understand pump-wearing as a practice in which key aspects of subjectivity and personhood are articulated (and in which sex is had or not, and dresses are chosen or discarded!), the prospect of having a new resource – in the form of Floeh’s creations –matters in some significant ways. And if Floeh’s designs render the pump less of a threat, a disruption, or fashion-obstacle, this seems like an improvement. Floeh’s designs permit wearers to make a strategic double-move around camouflage and visibility, simultaneously hiding the pump and drawing attention to its location (i.e., waist, hip, bustline). When I’m in disability-pride mode, I’m troubled by this kind of hiding, following the logic that visibility is good (i.e., wearing the pump on the outside makes us legible, shows the limits of clothes designed for bodies without peripherals, disrupts conventional, hetero feminine gender presentation) and hiding is, well, hiding, with its affective companions: shame, fear, desire for normalcy, willingness to pass.

But visibility is only one tactic among others, and hiding the pump can also be a radical act – especially if it facilitates feeling-good-while-diabetic (for example: the best act in my burlesque repertoire hinges on repurposing a strap-on harness as an under-dress pump-holder; most of the time, my solution to the dress-problem is a jury-rigged system involving a black garter with small cosmetics pouch from Benefit, bra straps, and safety pins to keep things from sliding down my leg – unless I’m already wearing a garter belt). Of course, in the case of hiding or disguising one’s pump, feeling good can also mean feeling closer to a conventional femininity and mythic norm. I don’t want to elide that possibility, but I also return to the reality of living with chronic illness: that we live in a space of contradiction, that we work with what we have & do what we need to do to claim our (sick, cyborg, incurable) bodies as desirable. In my ideal world – one I suspect Floeh wants, too – we’ll recognize that transformation can (and should) mean more than transforming the pump, or the wearer’s relation to it, to align more closely with a dominant, normate feminine ideal. Creating, enabling, accommodating, and celebrating a multitude of diabetic, cyborg embodiments — and advocating for wider access to the pump (with all of its troubling potential) for those who are uninsured and can’t afford the $6000 price tag — these are the kinds of social transformations that need to happen in conjunction with personal ones.

I’m curious to see what happens when Floeh’s products actually hit the market – who wears them, what kinds of feedback she receives, and how people incorporate them in their daily lives and outfits. Because the designs are not yet for sale, I’m bracketing my discussion of the politics of purchasing these products. I’ll be interested to see how accessible her products are in terms of price, and how other factors – like buying from a diabetic, or buying handmade, or extent of desire – will figure into my decision about making a purchase. Floeh’s personal story and motivating belief in the designs’ transformative potential signal that she’s in this for more than the money; she further supports her empowerment ethos with a free tutorial showing how to re-create one of her designs. By providing open access to these instructions, Floeh encourages the crafty among us to come up with personal interpretations of her concept (I sure hope she makes room for a gallery of Hanky-Pancreas-inspired projects on the site).

Regardless of whether Floeh’s designs deliver on the promise of transformation, she’s doing the important work of drawing attention to the struggles many women encounter with the pump, and to the ways diabetics negotiate social norms around gender and sexuality (i.e., it’s not just a medical issue, an access-to-healthcare issue). And if a woman like Floeh (read: beautiful, stylish, nature-loving) can claim cyborg status, we can hope that women who might be otherwise averse will want to follow her example, and our robotic pancreases will become an extension of our bodies in action, in love, in fashion, feeling good.

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Roland Barthes, a Fabric Flower, and a Freedom Rider

Originally published in the photo collection Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freed Riders, this archival police photograph of then 19 year-old Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland has been making the rounds. There is much debate about what troubling discourses of race and beauty might be operating in its reception right now, as there should be — the manifold dangers in conflating beauty with truth, or in attributing to whiteness a special heroism, are real and run deep.

But I admit that I keep looking too. Why? I’m reminded of Roland Barthes’s notion of the photograph’s punctum, “that accident [of photographic detail] which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (Camera Lucida, of course). For me, it’s the flower on her lapel catching in its petals the chain from the police identification board hanging around her neck, after her arrest. Evoking both vulnerability and defiance, that “minor”  sartorial detail, as Barthes puts it, bruises me, is poignant to me, even as I am wary of those other dangers.

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ART: “An Experimental Memorial for Federico García Lorca” (2009)

More photos of this experimental memorial at cakeandeatit.org.

From the Cake and Eat It Collective, a group creating “installations, happenings, performances and visual art that deal with the intersection of gift economy, fashion, anarchism and queer identities,” an experimental memorial that imagines the act of clothing each other as a radical act of care and its communication, whether to loved ones or strangers:

On the morning of August 19th, 1936 Spain’s most beloved poet, Federico García Lorca, was shot near an olive tree, his body thrown into a pit with thousands of others. He was murdered by nationalist insurgents, at the age of 38, because he was gay and an anarchist sympathizer. Last week, after 70 years, began the excavation of Lorca’s grave – a tentative step towards addressing the atrocities that happened under the Falangist regime. There is a saying in Spain: everyone within this grave, all mass graves, all the disappeared, are all Lorca’s.

The installation is a take on the free store, a concept popular during the Spanish Civil War, where clothes are donated by the community and gifted back into the community without any direct exchange. Viewers are encouraged to participate in this memorial by taking a gift and/or leaving one- clothing, notes, trinkets.

An Experimental Memorial for Federico García Lorca investigates the use of gift economy to explore the way we interact with the past and how we collectively process and heal. In that context these gifts become talismans that carry the memory of Lorca, and all the disappeared, on our bodies and act as a lens by which we are able to create a collective memory of their work and their lives.

More photos of this experimental memorial at cakeandeatit.org.

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Body Ink, Sex Kink, and Other Matters of National History

When America discovered that Sandra Bullock’s star-crossed romance with bad boy Jesse James had come to a crashing infelicitous end, every public and private detail (the categories tend to blur in tabloid news) about James’ mistress Michelle “Bombshell” McGee was quickly and widely scrutinized. A special focus was paid to the copious tattoos etched on McGee’s face, neck, and body.

Unlike the understated butterflys and floral garlands that adorn more than a few sorority girls’ ankles or the modest kanji script reading  “courage,” “love,” “strength,” or some such cherished individual characteristic found on various parts of undergrads’ backs and biceps (or so they think),  McGee’s ink inscribed a deviant sexual female body. This wrecking ball of ink, kink, and Nazism, as the story was told for weeks, had lay waste to the happy home of America’s sweetheart.

A chain of binary associations at once distanced and connected these two women in the popular imaginary. McGee represented the trashy (copious tattoos), slutty (stripper), immoral (swastika tattoo), low-class  (implied from all of the above) whore who contributed to the heartbreak of the monogamous Academy Award winning wife (and as we later learn, mother ) whose own tattoos are as modest as she is. (For the spectrum of female morality and ink size/placement, see Jezebel blogger Katy’s post on “Painted Ladies.”) Even Tina Fey rehearsed this dialectic in an SNL weekend update:

When your body looks like a dirtbag’s binder from 7th grade metal shop it doesn’t bode well for your character. . . For every Sandra Bullock there’s a woman who got a tattoo on her forehead because she ran out of room on her labia.

But McGee’s 15 seconds of fame has timed out (at least from my corner of the world) and yet, if yesterday’s New York Times opinion piece by economics professor and Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt and its 167 comments (at the time of this blog post) is any indication, concerns about tattoos and women’s sexuality remain strong. Upon news of a Pew Research study that found 40% of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo and 36% of those age 18-25 report having a tattoo, Levitt asks, “So what makes tattoos so popular?” Levitt surmises that people who get tattoos “are mostly trying to signal something about themselves to potential mates”:

Maybe a tattoo is a signal that a person is wild, impulsive, and likes risk.  I suppose those are traits I once would have sought in a woman, although they certainly wouldn’t be at the top of my list now!

This image of the “wild, impulsive, risk-taking woman” who Levitt’s apparently outgrown (for his modest and methodical wife?) associates tattoos with a young, unrefined, and attention-needy female sexuality. Katy argues, understandably, that “Not every tattoo is about sex.” I couldn’t agree more and yet I would qualify her point. Tattoos in the history of U.S. racial imperialism especially in relation to non-white women have always been about sex.

Throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, non-white people from Africa, the Pacific Islands, South America, Asia, and Australia were displayed as live exhibits at World’s Fairs, museums, and circuses throughout the U.S. These displays operated to give (pseudo)scientific evidence of the diversity of the “family of man” while also reinforcing the existing racial hierarchy of white superiority which conveniently justified an array of imperialist projects in the name of bringing civilization to the “primitives.” While all such displays contained a racial-sexual dimension that titillated and shocked the virtues of White Western audiences, heavily tattooed women were a particularly popular attraction. Legal scholars Lucille Ponte and Jennifer Gillan describe these attractions in their article about workplace anti-discrimination jurisprudence in the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy:

In these shows, heavily-tattooed females partially stripped before huge crowds to display their tattoos, concocting wild stories of ‘savage’ kidnappings and forced tattooing to explain their appearance. Embedded in these fanciful back-stories were the false assumptions that no woman would intentionally tattoo herself and that her own ‘natural’ frailty would make her unable to fend off the attacks of dangerous primitives.

These shows provided an opportunity for the audience to explore ‘culturally repressed desires and emotions,’ and ‘to experience subversive pleasures with and tortures of the flesh without sacrificing commonly held cultural understandings of corporeal responsibility’ while affirming ‘dominant cultural ideas about sanctity of the body.’ These carnival show settings also helped to embed negative stereotypes about women with tattoos as ‘loose’ or ‘tramps,’ labels that still persist in contemporary United States culture.

I want to recall this history as a reminder that class and gender hierarchies cannot be divorced from racial imperialism. The construction of middle class white female respectability has always depended on a racially and classed primitive other. While this history goes unspoken in the public discourse about (white) women and tattoos, as Ponte and Gillan make clear, it structures contemporary perceptions of “natural” beauty and White women’s bodies and sexuality.

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I’m going to guess that nearly everyone reading this blog either has at least one tattoo or knows someone who does well enough that they are familiar with the process. But for the ink novices among you, here’s a general rundown:

  • Decide what you want and where
  • Make the appointment and if necessary, the consultation visit – good tattoo artists like mine will be booked up for weeks, sometimes months
  • Ensure one’s bank account can stand the hit (all together, mine cost about $500 – a modest sum for the size and quality of tattoos. I wouldn’t presume to say I got the homie-discount but I didn’t pay full price after the first one having forged a solid acquaintanceship with this particular artist)
  • Arrive on time at appointment (unlike medical appointments I’ve had, tattoo appointments are implausibly on-time)
  • Tattoos can take 30 minutes or they can take weeks (healing time also varies depending on where you get it, how big, how well you look after the fresh scar, and who you are). As luck would have it, I’m not a bleeder so this part of the process is relatively easy for me.

And yes, getting tattoos hurt (a lot, if the needle is making contact with bones like rib cages and spines) and no, the pain doesn’t subside as the process goes on. It gets worse. But pain has long been part of the point of tattoos. A friend in grad school who had numerous tattoos including one covering almost the entirety of her back as well as her ear lobes stretched to about 0- or 00-gauge told me that she undertakes body modification to see how much pain her body can tolerate. I know exactly what she means. This isn’t an abuse of your body but an acute awareness of it.

Each of the four tattoos I have mark moments of my life when I was particularly aware, for better and worse, of my own solitude. (Attracting a sexual partner played no part in the mental, logistical, and corporeal experience of getting the tattoos.) The pain of the hot needle scraping raw flesh and bone helped me to viscerally mark these moments. This is why I rarely talk about my tattoos and find questions about them to be a violation of privacy. Visible tattoos or, for that matter, any mark of visible racial, gender, and class difference are not invitations to surveillance.

I want to note, too, that tattooing as a ritual of pain and a rite of passage is a significant part of many cultures. The Maori people of New Zealand and the Dayaks of Borneo, for example, use tattooing as a means of signifying social rank for women and men. Yemeni women tattoo their faces and hands to promote fertility as well as to protect against diseases. Such histories, unfortunately, are not a part of the mainstream American view of tattoos.

Edited to add: Mimi just sent me this link to a new movie called Covered: Women and Tattoos. If the movie lives up to director Beverly Yuen Thompson’s vision, I’ll be very excited to see it. Below is the Director’s Statement and a short video of the making of the movie.

I got my first tattoo at seventeen; it was nothing special, regrettable even, immortalizing an unfortunate relationship. But it was my first introduction to the world of tattooing; and more specifically, the world of women’s tattooing. I had accidentally ended up in one of the top all-female tattoo artists’ shops in the nation—Madame Vyvyn Lazonga in Seattle, Washington. My second tattoo was much more appropriately thought about and unique to my personality. From then on, I was hooked. At nineteen, my good friend was a tattoo artist, Charissa Vaunderbroad, and I spent my days studying in the tattoo studio, observing the customers. As I became more heavily tattooed, social reactions to my visible tattoos began to impact my life. I was interested in finding out about the experience of other heavily tattooed women and the ways in which they managed these social sanctions. Thus, the idea for Covered was born.

Tattoo culture has now entered the mainstream with its exponential growth in popularity, reality television shows, and nationwide tattoo conventions. While Kat Von D might have made it to television stardom as a female tattooist, other women’s voices from the tattoo community have been notably absent. When women are present, such as in tattoo magazines, they are often sexually objectified. Covered sets out to remedy these oversights by shedding light on the history of women in the tattoo industry and to share the voices and perspectives of heavily tattooed women in the United States.

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LINKAGE: Editorial Racism in Interview‘s “Let’s Get Lost”

Refinery 29 gives this Interview editorial, titled “Let’s Get Lost,” the side-eye of skepticism:

From the differences in their dress (Daria’s in ethereal, angel-like gowns, the others are in knits and leathers) to their body language (A limp yet super-sexual Daria is the main focus, the others feel almost like props), the whole spread has a rather racist vibe that we can’t get down with despite the gorgeous art direction of the spread. Don’t you agree? After all, regardless of what some say, fashion is at its core a political and social product—how power relationships are set up in editorials can speak volumes. So while the super-sexy, ethno-traditional thing is very of the moment, it all seems to be setting up a 21st century colonial construct that makes us very uncomfortable.

Good grief, Interview. It’s as if the entire fashion-industrial complex must be forcibly enrolled in a postcolonial feminist studies course, and made to imbibe bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other,” among other readings. Tom & Lorenzo (who also cast a critical eye upon Vivienne Westwood’s latest “homeless” collection) also comment (thanks for the heads up, Covet Chicago!):

Aren’t we past this whole colonialist idea of the fetishized black person? It’s fine to cast a bunch of gorgeous black models, but they’re more like props or backdrops for the white girl to play with or lean up against. Plus everyone’s inexplicably sweaty, like sex is gonna break out at any second. This is all deliberate button-pushing and it’s tired. “Let’s be controversial” in a very 1979 kind of way.

You can see the entire set of images at Refinery 29 or Tom & Lorenzo.

As well as “Eating the Other,” fashion editors, photographers, and their supporters would do well to revisit vintage Threadbared and read Mimi’s 3-part post on how fashion and art use people of color as landscape. See Background Color; Background Color, Redux; and Background Color, Redux II. (Minh-Ha)

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, LINKAGE

THEORY FLASH! Coco Fusco, “Who’s Doin’ the Twist?” in English Is Broken Here (1995)

Photo found at mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com.

Like Minh-Ha, I’m dedicating my time this week to my manuscript (and also all the end-of-the-academic-year functions, like graduations and awards ceremonies for “the kids”). But the most recent iteration of the phenomena of “native appropriations” sent me to my bookshelves for some choice commentary, stirred by vague memories of the same damn debate in days of yore. (And I think we actually have quite a number of posts here that speak to some of the general structural and ideological issues at hand, if not to the specifics.)

Interdisciplinary scholar and artist Coco Fusco, in an essay called “Who’s Doin’ The Twist? Notes on Cultural Appropriation” (published in her collection with the genius title English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas), offers some useful analytics for unpacking the premises of some of the defensive and hostile responses to Jessica Yee’s Bitch post, for instance, that claim a diffuse “right” or freedom to wear whatever one might want.

In this essay, Fusco addresses those moves by an aesthetic avant-garde to appropriate the signs and symbols of racial otherness in order to enhance their own identities as transgressive personalities, akin to bell hooks’ concept of “eating the Other,” and we can easily see how her criticisms of the avant-garde myth of originality (to cite Rosalind Krauss) might apply to the hipster or hippie in the headdress:

Writing and talking about cultural appropriation, I reposition myself in a somewhat precarious way within a society that seeks to deny how segregated it is; I go from being a “minority” critic dutifully explaining otherness to one who addresses whites as agent in an ongoing dynamic of racialization. This shift in terms disrupts the commonly held assumption that desire for the Other is in itself a way of eliminating racial equality. Furthermore, to speak of whiteness as a way of being in the world still disturbs many of those for whom a racialized discourse is in itself a minority discourse, a mode of marginalization. Dominant cultural and white avant-garde defenses are cast in terms of aesthetic freedom (But why can’t I use what I want as an artist?) and transgression of bourgeois banality (But I cross boundaries and therefore I rebel too). What is more fundamentally at stake than freedom, I would argue, is power — the power to choose, the power to determine value, and the right of the more powerful to consume without guilt. That sense of entitlement to choose, change, and redefine one’s identity is fundamental to understanding the history of how white America has formed ideas about itself, and how those ideas are linked first to a colonial enterprise, and in the postwar period, to the operations of industrialized mass culture. (68)

Coco Fusco in full effect!

Fusco also tackles the divide that assigns creativity to acts of appropriation of “exotic” or “other” cultural forms performed by privileged persons, and simultaneously decries as derivative those acts of parody, recycling, creolization, and adaptation of imposed cultural forms performed by non-privileged persons. In this troubling formulation, she argues, the privileged person is granted a sense of self-making or creative agency, while the non-privileged person is either a mimic or tragically “unnatural” and “inauthentic.” (See the entire history of the 20th century American and European avant-garde, perhaps most egregiously the movement dubbed “primitivism.”) We witness this dynamic play out in those comments that both proclaim a “right” to wear feathers as a matter of personal freedom absent of historical “baggage,” and at the same time suggest that indigenous peoples themselves “sold out” their cultures, by manufacturing commodities for tourist consumption. (An alternate reading might interpret this as the creative recycling of an always already problematic concept of “Indianness,” as artist James Luna does in his installation work.)

Finally, Fusco ends with this very much relevant note to distinguish between such acts not through some hazy notions of moralism or intention, but via historical knowledge of the relations of power and cultural exchange:

What is at stake in the defensive reactions to appropriation is the call to cease fetishizing the gesture of crossing as inherently transgressive, so that we can develop a language that accounts for who is crossing, and that can analyze the significance of each act. Unless we have an interpretative vocabulary that can distinguish among the expropriative gestures of the subaltern, the coercive strategies that colonizers levy against the colonized, and dominant cultural appropriative acts of commodification of marginalized cultures, we run the perpetual risk of treating appropriation as if the act itself had some existence prior to its manifestations in a world that remains, despite globalism, the information highway, and civil rights movements, pitifully undemocratic in the distribution of cultural goods and wealth. (77)

Coming up next in THEORY FLASH!, “Native Appropriations” Edition, is Rosemary Coombe’s brilliant The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties.

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, THEORY TO THINK WITH