At a picnic a few months ago, some moms and I were joking about our postpartum bodies. One mom of 4 laughed about her reverse boob job after weaning, and I off-handedly, and unoriginally, described my saggy midsection, repeating the Jennifer Garner joke about a camel’s hump.
Body jokes are a delicate balance. The self-deprecation can go too far. But, for many of us, humor is a good way to ease the internal tension between our imagined body and our real one. Oh, and it reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.
However, one new mom paused and contemplatively announced: “When I have the time, I’m getting a rockin’ bod.” Some other moms nodded in agreement.
Typically blunt, I asked: “Why? To what end?”
I should have asked, “What is your definition of rockin’ bod? And, what will you do after you get it?”
Actually, no. I should have just smiled and nodded. My response was rude. Who was I to question another mom’s body goals?
Rudeness aside, her comment dug into my brain.
That night, I thought a lot about “rockin’ bods” and tried to figure out why the term unsettled me. I even attempted to look up Lacan and Mulvey to clarify my thoughts about the Gaze, until I realized I had tossed Lacan’s works in a grand purge last year. (I’m convinced the purge was a good decision. I can’t take Lacan —or Freud— seriously.)
Nevertheless, I expunged some expert excerpts explaining the Laconian Gaze, especially as interpreted by Laura Mulvey , and found the concept useful in thinking about the postnatal mother.
Let me stop to explain the Gaze: A person (usually a man) looks at a woman. A woman notices she is being looked at and now sees herself through the lens of the one doing the looking. Therefore, the gaze is internalized, which means any gaze outward is really a reflection of an external gaze. Subjectivity is lost.
The postpartum period is fraught because many moms subconsciously fear they aren’t worthy objects of the Gaze. Keep in mind, this is happening in the mind. Therefore, the preoccupation with getting your body back or getting a better body than before is really a preoccupation with returning to your rightful spot as the Gaze’s object.
Or maybe I’m overthinking it.
Lacan has a lot to say about the mirror phase, anxiety, blah blah blah. What I care about is the way we, especially women, view ourselves as objects being viewed. A “rockin’ body” has nothing to do with the way you feel in your body. It is about how others view it. It is the Laconian loss of autonomy writ large.
Is The Gaze a Problem?
Maybe all this anxiety about the Gaze is misplaced. We are all simultaneous subjects and objects. This is the way the world works. Plus, gazing at yourself admiringly is not a bad thing, even if you view yourself through the lens of an Other. The world is a visual feast, yourself included.
But, a Gaze has a subject and an object. If you view your body through the lens of someone else viewing your body, you can easily fall into the trap of fearing your body isn’t worthy of the Gaze, or, worse, fearing you are worthy BECAUSE of the Gaze. You risk You as Object consuming You as Subject.
Fearing your body is not worthy of the Gaze completes the inherent objectification that comes with setting “rockin’ body” as a goal. Lacan might say postpartum women who watch their postpartum bodies being watched internalize society’s visual ownership of and fascination with the female form. Or maybe not. Lacan wasn’t big on women.
Let’s be honest, most of the postnatal fitness routines are about getting back a body that is an acceptable object of the Gaze. For example, when the popular meme getting a bikini body is thrown about, the goal is the Gaze’s validation (even if we pretend the goal is simply feeling good in your skin. That can be done without posing).
As a result, the body becomes an object of work. It becomes a project.
Your Body Isn’t a Freakin’ Project
Enjoying your own embodiment is part of life. We have bodies. We are embodied. Bodies=good
However, a goal for a particular type of body—a “rockin’ body”— makes your body a project. It’s like saying, when I get the time, I’m going to plant a garden or write a book or learn to knit or get a rockin’ bod. In SAT speak, what term doesn’t fit?
A project has a beginning and an end. If your project is a bikini body, the end is a snapshot.
What happens after the snapshot?
Life goes on.
Now we need to extend the project. What perpetual anxiety that can create. Hollywood’s mummified faces are great examples of this anxiety.
Your Body Is You
Your body is you. It’s always there. It’s not a discrete project.
You can’t stop and start your body, unless you count birth and death. Otherwise, it ain’t going anywhere.
Some days or years you’ll take exquisite care of it, hopefully more days and years than you don’t.
Some days you won’t recognize it.
Some days you’ll delight in it.
Some days it will disappoint you.
But no matter what you do with your body or what happens to your body, until you die, it will always be there. Here. Living your life.
Your body is not a project. Not a Barbie doll in the making. Not an object to be perfected.
- Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” coined the phrase “the male gaze.” If you aren’t familiar with the concept, you are familiar with its enactment. In cinema, women are the objects rather than the possessors of the gaze. It’s not 1975 anymore. Perhaps ‘the male gaze” is simply the ever-present “gaze.” ↩
- The only thing worse than reading post-modernists is reading academics write about postmodernists. For example, let this flow off your tongue: “To put it in general terms, because it encounters an uncomfortable resistance, a conscious look that is directed outwards transforms into a self- consciousness that returns to its agent as anxiety in relation to the scrutiny of an externalized anonymous Other. Lacan refers to the latter scrutiny, but also to the object that is its source as ‘the gaze.’” That’s from “The Politics of the Gaze”. ↩ Holy prepositional phrase! Or, should I say, in regards to the prepositional phrase, this description of Lacan’s definition of the externalized Other as it relates to the Gaze reflects the anxiety induced within women who watch their own postpartum bodies being watched by the public’s gaze that itself reflects a kind of ownership and fascination with the female form? Ack! Sorry, I coughed up a mumbo jumbo hairball.