Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Only brown people shit

Have you ever noticed the great lengths that people go to conceal bodies and bodily acts in the US? Restrooms are hidden in difficult to find places and signage isn’t necessarily apparent. Two sets of doors (one right after another, creating a hallway) prevents outsiders from catching a glimpse of the inside. Sanitary products are scented to prevent revealing odors. Scented candles and potpourri in private restrooms conceal the activities of the previous occupant. Even news stories talking about obesity blur out the faces of people they show images of, even if the bodies on display are in “public” mode (ie, walking down the street just normally).
A picture from a channel 10 news article on obesity. Notice how the faces are carefully left out.
My point, rather unsurprisingly, is that we have a lot of anxiety about our own bodies and bodily actions. You won’t see depictions of people defecating in mainstream discussions, unless it’s for comical effect, shock value, or to point out their uncivilized behavior and deviant status (as in covering a news story of someone defecating on a police car in protest). We won’t even talk about it, unless it’s about infants or social deviants.
Contrast all that with this video from CNN, where the camera shows (quite clearly) people defecating on the railroad tracks. Their bottoms are blurred, but not their faces, protecting the viewer’s sensibility, but the not the anonymity or dignity of the people being photographed. You can find countless pictures of people defecating on blogs, news outlets, videos, and other visual media, but what do the people have in common?
1)      They are all men or children..
2)      They are all visibly impoverished people in developing countries.
3)      They are not blurred out.
(I don’t really want to go and find more examples for you all, but spend some time with Google and YouTube and you’ll come across more examples than you care to see.)
It is the bodily actions of the poor, racialized Other that can be on display, not our own, and certainly not women’s. The bodies of the Other are fair game for display. In their bodily practices we can see enacted their deviance from the norm. We can see their alien-ness. Their inferiority. Their dirtiness.
People might argue that it doesn’t matter to the people being photographed. These are people who are so poor that they can’t afford toilets—it’s not like their neighbors will see these pictures, right? It’s not like potential employers will see these pictures, right? But in a country like India, where there are more cell phones than toilets, the interconnectivity of the Internet can exist side-by-side with a lack of sanitation. As my colleague and fellow graduate student Aubrey Graham has researched, the photos we take and how we take them in developing countries can come back to these countries and result in dire consequences—stigma, anger, and sometimes violence. While I cannot think of any particular specific incident in which a picture of someone openly defecating has directly affected that individual’s life, I think it is unfair and wrong to force that risk upon already marginalized people.
[The following section may contain some imagery that sensitive readers will find disturbing. Possible trigger warning.]
But much broader than that, such discourse harkens back to 18th and 19th century European fascination with the intimate bodies of the exotic peoples. Saartjie Baartman, a black South Afrikaan woman born in 1790, was a part of an exhibition that travelled throughout London and Paris for five years under the anglicized name Sarah Baartman.

Anatomical diagrams drawn after death

She was advertised as the “Hottentot Venus” by the animal trainer who showed her off. She would emerge from a cage on a raised platform, where people would poke at her and wonder at the strangeness of her shape, wondering if her buttocks could be real. She was seen as hyper-sexual, as animal, and as not human.
French print from early 19th century: "La Belle Hottentot"
European observers say, "Oh God Damn, what roast beef!" and "How comical is nature!"
After her death, the French anatomist George Leopold Cuvier (1769-1832) examined her body in great detail. In particular, he was very interested in her genitalia, convinced that he would find anatomical evidence showing how she was naturally lascivious and animalistically passionate. Through his measurements, he claimed to find fundamental differences in her genitalia, and his examination of her came to stand in as the definitive study of all African women. He then proceeded to remove her genitalia, preserve them, and put them on display in the Museum of Man in Paris. Beverly Guy-Sheftall writes of this, “There is nothing sacred about Black women’s bodies, in other words. They are not off-limits, untouchable, or unseeable.” This is in contrast to the bodies of white people, and especially, white women.
Many of the chapters in Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla’s book Deviant Bodies demonstrate the urge of European men to find explanations for or proof of social deviance in the bodies of those who society deemed deviant—prostitutes, nymphomaniacs, Black people, criminals. There must be something in the bodies of these people who explain their strangeness, how they are biologically (and thus, in their view, fundamentally) different than me: the size of the labia, the shape and size of the brain, and, in modern times, their very DNA. By rendering the differences biological, we render them safe—I cannot possibly be like that.
But I would argue that in the visual depictions of sanitation and defecating we are doing the same thing but instead of looking at the body directly as the source of abnormality and otherness, we look at practices of the body—which, really, are still very close to the body itself. Like Sarah Baartman’s genitalia, we can place the body practices of the Other in our modern museums—the images of the media. By visually depicting these bodily practices, we distance ourselves from them, dehumanize them, and, under the guise of sympathy, ensure ourselves that we are not them, that they are fundamentally different than us.
This has a tendency in manifesting in policies and programs that seem to be based on the idea that somehow people who are openly defecating or engage in bodily practices that are different than our norms are different in some way, that what motivates them are strange “cultural” reasons that we must decode. “Culture” becomes “body”, since it is not accepted anymore (most of the time, anyway) to talk about fundamental “biological” differences.
So as we fight for better sanitation coverage in the world, it is important to think of how we do it. What are the stories we tell with the pictures we take? And do we want those stories told about us?

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