Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Getting wellness

I got the new issue of Bitch in the mail this week and inside was this brilliant article:

Eat, Pray, Spend

Now, I'm fully aware of the possibility that at this point everything I read might seem related to the birth control pill to me - the result of thinking too long on the same subject. However this piece discusses the idea of 'wellness' in such a way that I started making connections between Pill-taking, consumerism and self-improvement I had not previously considered.

I guess my last two posts have pondered on this thought that taking the Pill is a form of self-improvement, if we come from a place, and we all kind of do, in which femaleness is seen negatively. I have said that there's an underlying message to Pill pushing that women can be improved, made better by taking the Pill. I have also said that we could see taking the Pill as an effort to get beyond femaleness. I'm kind of getting more and more interested in what the Pill means in terms of gender construction. It's funny because right back when I started this blog I bought a book on Queer Theory, and at the time I wasn't sure why I thought it was relevant. Nine months later I understand how it fits, and have begun reading.

So, the article talks about 'priv-lit' by which the writer means the sort of books women authors produce about their journey to enlightenment, self-fulfillment, happiness - stuff like Eat, Pray, Love. These books are ostensibly about becoming a better person, or a more enlightened person through removing yourself from your normal life and heading to India, or a yoga retreat or a Thai beach or some other such place to realign your perception. The writer of this article questions what becoming 'better' means within this culture, or genre - and suggests at the bottom of all the talk of spirituality the adventures in self-improvement tend to be about the woman finding a man, looking more attractive and getting into a new-age, well-traveled glamorous lifestyle. The writer calls the journeys to enlightenment, or retreats, or other such plans 'wellness schemes' - and remarks on how the authors of such books have an 'obsession with wellness.' The word 'wellness' is interesting in that it implies that those who have not attained wellness are sick. 'Wellness' is deliberately vague, of course, and the book authors never really explain how they are hoping to change. All we get to see is the profits of their new found wellness - usually a new boyfriend, a tan, a yoga body.

The writer argues that these books promote materialism masked as empowerment. The road to wellness, as it is described, is expensive - the travel, the yoga gurus, the classes, the expensive cleansing foods, the time off work. Enlightenment more and more so involves a lot of spending. And if no one really knows what enlightenment is then the spending never need to end. Wellness is connected with the idea of 'wholeness' also. 'Wholeness' is again an interesting word as it suggests those who do not seek it are doomed to forever be missing something, to be broken. The writer states that the narrative of 'priv-lit' fits very well with mainstream misogyny. The overriding, shared story is that:

'Women are inherently and deeply flawed, in need of consistent improvement throughout their lives. Those who don't invest in addressing their flaws are ultimately doomed to make themselves, if not others, miserable.'

This is what got me coming up with Pill connections. The way the Pill is 'marketed' either directly with commercials, or through the press, or by medical authorities is as though taking the Pill, and shutting down the reproductive system as a result (particularly menstruation), is an action of self-improvement. Women are understood as intrinsically sick, faulty because of their reproductive systems. The natural elements of this system - monthly periods, changing emotional state - have been promoted as unhealthy and dangerous. The Pill is no longer just about birth control, it is about controlling femaleness. Women have come to accept that in being female they are flawed, therefore shutting down an essential indicator of femaleness must necessarily be improvement upon their bodies, their selves. We have seen in the marketing of Yasmin and Seasonique that women who take the Pill are understood as sexier, more attractive, glamorous even. In taking birth control pills women are made to believe they are achieving 'wellness' - both physically and socially, as with priv-lit.

The idea of improving on the female with the Pill is part of the wider consumer culture of constant self-improvement through consumption of things external to your self. The writer calls what the priv-lit authors attain as 'false wellness' - it is not empowered as they see it, because it is governed by the needs of the economy. The women are buying into a culture, not acting independently for their own needs - they are only responding to the needs created for them through the means consumerism provides. They are not rising above the society that makes them feel 'unwell' as women, but perpetuating assumptions that women are unwell and need to be made better. They are ingesting negative ideas of femaleness, and then acting against this in a way that only confirms the validity of the ideas.

The writer of the article points out that when priv-lit authors discuss becoming 'healthy' it is not as an end in itself - not to feel better, think clearer or improve their outlook - but as a means to an end - that is getting a man with their healthier looks. Therefore what they do to become 'healthy' - even if it is yoga and specially made juices - only has to make them look better, and could in fact make them feel less well - it doesn't matter. I had a conversation with a friend about the 'yoga body' and how basically it indicates wealth - it's a marker of an elite group who can afford to go to yoga class every day, in time and money. Tampons and sanitary towels used to be accessible, as I've mentioned before, to only rich women and so became regarded originally as signifiers of a glamorous, rich lifestyle. Yasmin is the most expensive birth control pill out, and has been advertised as a lifestyle drug for women leading 'Sex and the City' type lives. The Pill in general is a more expensive form of birth control, so it holds connections with manipulated ideas of aspirational living.

If we live in a consumer culture run through with messages of self-improvement, a culture that also has foundational negative beliefs about women, then how do we as women respond to that? By self-improving our selves out of our female-ness and towards 'maleness' or 'non-femaleness,' perhaps.

I hadn't thought before reading this article about how the Pill, and statins, medications - as I was discussing in my previous post - and the idea of improving on human biology, or making us less faulty, is one part of an entire culture that emphasises self-improvement through consumable additions to the self. Self-improvement is often linked to exterior indicators of improvement - attractiveness or just how you will be seen by others - which are made more important than improvements on health or quality of life. The writer also talks about how 'wellness' is shown to be achieved through sacrifice. Be that monetary, time or commitments - your self-fulfillment is ultimate. Taking the Pill is making a sacrifice in order to attain perceived perfection - physical and social.

In a way, we aren't any more primarily men or women, we are first and foremost consumers and it is most useful that what it is to be a man or a woman is separated from our experience of it, manipulated, repackaged and sold back to us. It is more useful that we do not know what it is to be a woman, that we do not 'own' this as such, but that we must buy into our womanhood. We must consume in order to be women. We must buy back our femaleness piece by piece.

We can talk about gender being a construct, how we only learn what it is to feel male or female socially, but the biggest constructors of gender are corporations wanting to sell us stuff. I wrote my dissertation back in college about how the idea of maleness and masculinity has changed over time - what it was to be a 'man' was different in the 1960s to what it was in the 1980s to what it is now - yet always the idea of some 'real' and 'original' essential masculinity has been manipulated in order to create new kinds of maleness. As the economy changed, the idea of maleness had to change - industrial to post-industrial and so on. I wrote about how the TV show Jackass reveals men trying to reclaim their male bodies through self-harm. Hurting themselves to feel the realness of their physicality. I should look that essay up and have a re-read. It suddenly feels very relevant.

A friend of mine who works with autistic young men was talking to me the other day about how autism can prevent people from being able to see and understand social constructs - such as how to behave when having dinner with a group of people or even the idea of what dinner is as opposed to just eating when and where you are hungry, how to buy something in a shop, or how to conduct your self in any social situation. This has to do with not being able to generalize, to see the similarity in situations and assume certain behaviour is necessary or required in that situation. Autistic people, she also said, often don't care about what other people think, because they have no way of understanding other people as, well, people I guess.

My friend pointed out that the bank, the school, the dinner party are social constructs but so is the idea of the 'self' - and she explained that autistic people don't have an idea of the 'self' as who they are as seen by other people. So, they don't care about how they need to present their selves in order to create a certain impact, or about creating a particular lifestyle that is a reflection of their self. They do what they want to do, not what they want to do in order to produce a 'self' and an effect as a result of that. I don't know whether autistic men display understanding of themselves as men as opposed to women, but I know my friend has mentioned that they don't often behave within a clear-cut sexuality boundaries. In fact I think she said that sometimes autistic people identify best as bisexual. I suppose if they don't care how people see them, or have a sense of 'self,' then why would they have a sense of gender?

If we see gender as a construct, we can also consider the self as a construct - within gender we act in ways and do things that are expressions of what we have learnt to be our 'self' - from others, from society. That 'self' fits in to as many boundaries as the overarching gender banner under which we perform - as 'male' or female.' The more consumed we become with self-presentation, the more distanced we become from our actual selves.

Priv-lit and its ideas of self-fulfillment displaces the 'self' from the reality of existing as a human being and how that actually feels. For this strand of consumer culture to be a success we must feel there is something missing and we must then go in search of becoming whole. We must feel incomplete, we must not feel like our true 'selves' - for this feeling to be created we must be separated from our self and have to buy that back bit by bit.

Taking the Pill is an effort in buying into an accepted form of femininity, of grasping and living in a socially understood concept of femaleness. It is consuming in order to achieve an identity that fits with the ideals we see presented. The Pill brings us closer to the perfect, closer to the image of female. The reality of female does not exist, the 'original' femininity is a manipulated construct. Discussion of how women are originally suggests biology rules and dictates, and as historically such thoughts have only justified the oppression of women, we have become happy to disregard biology and embrace concepts of femaleness that entirely deny not just biology, but humanity. Taking the Pill is also an act of conformism - showing a desire for similarity, sameness - for an unchanging, continuous, controlled state of being. It is an interior version of exterior conformism through body shape, hair color, appearance. It is homogenisation. Sounding a bit Baudrillard, it always seems to come back to him.