Almost twenty years ago, fashion designer Rei Kawakubo released a collection titled “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body.” Alternately hailed as groundbreaking and as a grotesque offense to female beauty, the outfits articulated new human forms through unexpected arrangements of down padding. “I realized that the clothes could be the body, and the body could be the clothes,” Kawakubo said at the time. In the process of creative inversion, both body and dress are defamiliarized, introducing possibilities of embodiment that provoke, protect, liberate, and inspire.
I asked my students in our MA seminar, “Bodies at Work: Gender and Labor in Contemporary Visual Culture,” to engage in a similar exercise of defamiliarization for their last assignment of Fall 2017. Responding to the prompt, If you could be any kind of body, what would that be and why?, each student offered her vision of an embodied utopia that is at once fully rooted in the disheartening realities of our collective present.
We wanted to share these works with the Gallatin community as part of our current national conversation about bodies and boundaries. It has become painfully evident that certain bodies are more desired and more devalued than others, exposing the underside of the glamour machines fueling our celebrity-obsessed age. In class, we related this back to our basic Western cultural understanding of bodies as objects, namely, as discrete entities that can be measured and manipulated, evaluated and eviscerated.
How, then, can we not only think, but also feel, beyond rigid dichotomizations of lived experience, including that of embodiment/disembodiment itself (the latter, a common tactic of self-preservation among victims of sexual harassment)? Can mother and infant be thought of as “a” body perhaps? How about a community coming together in crisis?
When might bodies not be bound by the knowledge of boundaries? Each of the following pieces speaks to these questions in combinations of poetry and prose, published anonymously given their intensely personal nature.
—Elena X. Wang
When I am a little loud, or a little blunt, or a little messy, I can open a gate, and trespass into a world that is not readily given to me.
This body, that I inherited from my mother and her mother’s mothers, is almost, but not exactly complete.
Every single part of my face tells a story of my ancestors and my family composition.
If you can’t erase the significance of color, erase color. / If you can’t erase the significance of the body, erase the body.
Before, we were all instincts, hunting and touching, live and let die. No promises. But then people began to speak, and something went very wrong.
I’m not interested in changing the world. I’m interested in surviving in it.
In my utopian alternative, society would be less concerned with aesthetics and more concerned with their auditory perceptions.
What if you can observe a situation and not be present in it?
I know the one in the mirror in the morning, / in the store windows just cleaned down Broadway, / in the selfies I never seem to stop taking
A manifesto for a body not fully morphed by outside forces.