At the beginning of March 2013 I attended my second academic conference. It was a postgraduate conference entitled ‘Body Projects’ and when I first saw the Call for Papers I thought it seemed really interesting as some of the themes related to my own research interests.
The conference was at the University of York so I set off to get the train at about 6am. When I arrived the university staff and students were really welcoming and I spent some time looking through the conference program before the first session began.
During the morning sessions, there was a focus on female bodybuilding and how it can conflict with traditional notions of femininity and heteronormativity. Dr Gemma Commane gave a great talk based on Jodie Marsh and how Jodie’s status as a glamour model juxtaposes her choice to modify her body with tattoos and piercings and her choice to pursue a career in female bodybuilding. Really interesting!
A highlight of the day came from Tanita Maxwell and Sarah Peat, postgraduate students at the University of Aberdeen. Their paper looked at Suicidegirls.com which is an alt-porn website set up by women with the aim of challenging popular representations of beauty and sexuality. The Suicide Girls claim that they are not Baywatch girls and they are not Playboy girls, however, as Maxwell & Peat argue, the website does not really serve to challenge the existing order, in fact, over time the images of Suicide Girls have become increasingly ‘mainstream’ with the exception of tattoos and piercings. Maxwell & Peat also argue that a large majority of the images are of thin, white woman and when women are not white, for example, if they are Asian, they are often labelled ‘exotic’ by the site. Another interesting point about this talk is that it brought up issues surrounding the ownership of images on the website which I assume to be an important factor of agency for the girls involved.
A separate point which came up during the day was the notion that conforming to popular forms of femininity can be interpreted as a kind of performative labour and entrepreneurship by women who will also often treat the body as a site of continual improvement. In keeping with this argument it was interesting to hear some of the speakers relate conformity to the experience of trans women whose attempts to fit in are often based on binary ideas and stereotypical representations of gender.
Perceptions of one’s own body was also a recurrent theme within the conference and a particularly interesting study by Dr Beth Bell of Northumbria University really inspired me. Beth’s presentation/paper was entitled “The Thin but not that thin Body Ideal: A Qualitative Glimpse into Adolescent Girls’ Personal Body and Beauty Ideals”. In the study participants were asked just one question- to describe what the perfect body is to them. It was really insightful to discover that the majority of girls had very specific ideas about what the perfect body looks like with “curvy but not fat” and “a small waist but not too thin” being the kind of answers that were given. Some of the girls rejected the idea that there is such a thing as the perfect body and others described a body drastically different to their own.
Other talks on the day included an insight into the Kickboxing culture of Dutch-Moroccan girls and how they avoid training hard, instead using kickboxing training as a symbol of status and a means of fitting in with their peers.
Overall the conference was exciting and very interesting! Hearing from the speakers about their wide range of research has definitely helped me to see where my own research ideas and aims fit within the existing literature, not just in relation to my own topic but the topics which surround it.
When I got home I was really pleased with my daytrip and how well it went. I even managed to see some of the sites of York while I was there but it was rainy and miserable as you can see from my photo!
My next post will be a summary of a conference I attended this week at the University of Chester.