Talking Bodies Conference University of Chester (26/03/13)

Conference Summary

378320_talking-bodies‘Talking Bodies’ was held at the University of Chester and organised by Emma Rees (and her small army of purple shirted helpers). I booked this conference late last year so by the time it came around I had been looking forward to it for ages and couldn’t wait to get there! Luckily I don’t live too far from Chester and it was only a 45 minute train journey and a quick taxi ride to the university campus. A friend was also attending so we got some tea and had a quick chat. I was really impressed by the small ‘market place’ the uni had set up where they were selling books, jewellery, bags, badges, ornaments and other random things. The university had a really friendly atmosphere and I got a sense that it was going to be a really beneficial experience for me.

Unfortunately I was only able to attend the first and last day of the event due to work commitments, therefore the highlights below are from those days only.

Karina Quinn, visiting from Australia, gave a fantastic presentation which was very poetic. Karina’s writing style is facto-critical and focuses very much on her writing about her own body. Her aim is to create a space within academia where others are able to also write in this incredibly creative way. This was a really interesting talk and as a speaker, Karina captivated her audience. There was focus on how her purpose is to ‘unhide’ as in the past she had felt a sense of over-disclosure whereas now she embraces the act of ‘writing her body’. I felt that this was really original and inspiring work.

Georgia Burdett’s paper focuses on the work of the Welsh author Niall Griffiths. In analysing the literary texts Sheepshagger(2002) and Runt(2008), Georgia found references and representations of learning disabled and autistic individuals/characters. Although stereotypical and derogatory language is often used in reference to these characters, Georgia argues that the author and these texts in particular, represent progress in terms of cultural representation within Welsh literature.

Louise Yates gave a really interesting talk about tall women arguing that when women are taller than average, there is a fine line between being thought of as a ‘vision’ and being though of as a ‘spectacle’ or a freak. Louise claims that throughout history and even now, women who are ‘too tall’ seem to seen as somewhat more masculine than smaller women. Throughout the talk links were made to hetero-normative scripts, non-normative bodies and ideas surrounding romance. For example, the need or desire for a woman to be shorter than the man she is dating (think Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman or Sophie Dahl and Jamie Cullum). This was a really interesting paper for me because I am interested in representations of the human body in popular media. This was also a topic I would assume that not many people think about, unless you are yourself particularly tall, therefore it was intriguing and insightful at the same time.

Melissa Trujillo’s presentation explored the concept of ‘body image’ and the need for a new type of rhetoric in relation to how we describe issues which surround the body. Arguing that body image is a gendered term which carries with it negative connotations, Melissa put forward the concept of ‘positive corporeal  agency’ which aims to inflect a sense of agency into academia’s representation of women and the debates surrounding how they might experience their bodies. Interested in body practices, Melissa’s research also involves a qualitative study on corporeal routines and women’s relationship with their bodies.

The plenary session for the first day involved speaker Ellie Land and her animated documentary ‘Centrefold’ which is about labiaplasty. This 9 minute animation is nothing short of AMAZING. It is understanding, compassionate and representative of women who do not have a voice in mainstream media. In her animation, Ellie gives a balanced, fair view of a subject which is often framed in  relation to ‘inferior’ issues surrounding vanity and the desire to look a certain way. The short film is available to watch here:

Miriam Walsh’s paper focuses on fairytales and the ‘importance of beauty to the construction of female identity’. Using Cinderella as a prime example, Miriam argues that young audiences learn from fairytales that exciting things only happen to those who are beautiful. Miriam also equates beauty with ‘goodness’ and ugliness with being bad or evil within traditional and modern fairytales.

Zahra Stardust gave a really insightful talk about her experience of being a sex worker. Zahra argues that academic discourse surrounding the sex industry and those who work within it is problematic as it neglects the opinions, attitudes and views of sex workers whilst having the potential to effect their working lives by impacting local authorities or policy initiatives. Zahra critiqued the recent ‘sexualisation’ debates and dismissed theories relating to ‘objectification’, ‘pornification’ and ‘raunch culture’ claiming that these interpretations are far from what actually happens in porn. Zahra argues that sex workers are aware of the sexism and stigma involved with the job and that they have “diverse relationships with beauty, femininity, performativity and stereotype”. Zahra challenges notions of passivity and overall, presented an impressive paper which was extremely welcome given the lack of sex workers speaking to academia about this issue.

Abigail Tazzyman spoke about her research into identity and body modifications. Taking a chronological or a historical look at the participants body modifications, from hair removal and make up to tattoos and piercings, Abigail argues that body modifications are a social phenomena “significantly determined by their social context”.

IMG_0809[1]Marjolein Van Bavel’s research was really interesting and extremely relevant to some of the topics I hope to cover within my thesis. Marjolein’s study involved qualitative interviews with ex-Playboy models (and models from other prestigious Dutch pornographic magazines) from the 1980s. With the aim of exploring aspects of empowerment, Marjolein sought to examine the relationship between popular discourse relating to ‘sexualisation’ and the individual discourse of the women who ‘sexualised themselves’ posing nude for men’s magazines. The participants of the study spoke about actively seeking to de-sexualise their poses, expressing agency when able to and preserving control in certain ways, for example, by having an input into how photoshoots would look or what poses and style would be used. The women did not feel incredibly disempowered through the work they did, although there were times when they did feel sexualised, exploited and a distinct lack of control. Marjolein argues that a new discourse is needed to address the historical shift in how women experience sex work and there needs to be a particular focus on discussing aspects of empowerment/disempowerment, agency/structure.

Reflecting on the conference, it was a fantastic experience which opened my eyes to a lot of topics relating to my research interests. Hearing from a variety of speakers, particularly those working within the sex industry, really opened my eyes to a range of different perspectives. This is the third conference I have attended and it was also the best. It was extremely well organised, the staff were welcoming and it was definitely value for money at £75. Overall, the event was a great success!

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