Today we’re sharing a review of the Gendered Bodies in Visible Spaces event at Leeds Beckett University, from Adam Lowe. If you’d like to write a piece for us please do get in touch! To see more about the event, check out the hashtag #BVis15 on Twitter.
Gendered Bodies In Visible Spaces – #BVis15 Review
On the 25th June 2015, Leeds Beckett’s Centre for Applied Social Research (CeASR) and the BPS’s Psychology of Women Section (POWS) presented GENDERED BODIES IN VISIBLE SPACES, a single-day conference determined to make visible and disrupt the often unchecked machinations of misogyny in modern western culture.
The intention of the event was clear just from the powerful promotional artwork. Incorporating Lichtenstein’s famous pop-art piece CRAK! depicting a female world war II underground fighter, firing a rifle. In the original she exclaims “Pour La France!”, in 2015 she asked “Is my body still a battleground?” Like Lichtenstein’s heroine, the academics behind #BVis15 are bringing the fight, encouraging “…feminist resistance around policed, gendered bodies as we encounter them in our public lives.”
The day opened with a brief introduction from Dr Lucy Thompson, Glen Jankowski and Shona McCulloch, all Leeds Beckett academics and the organisers of the event. Thompson set the agenda by highlighting a modern conceit; the perception that race, gender, disability, etc. are no longer problematic and instances of discrimination and subjugation are isolated, subjective experiences. Thompson declared that we must make perceived individualised experiences of oppression collective in order to combat them.
Following introductions came the first of two guest keynote talks. Marvina Newton, founder of Leeds-based charity Angel of Youths, gave a personal, affecting and often uncomfortable account of the regulation of black women’s bodies by the media and society in general. Drawing from her own lived experiences, Newton illustrated the subtleties of being underprivileged by racial positioning. From the difficulty of finding representative toys and TV shows for her daughter, to the pervasiveness of a cosmetics culture that encourages skin bleaching and hair ‘relaxing’, all towards an aesthetic ideal embraced in large part due to the knowledge that to have darker skin is to reduce ones prospects of success within a supposedly colour-blind modern society. To demonstrate the otherwise unseen complexities of these issues, Newton had a handful of delegates join her on the stage for a game of what she called ‘Privilege Bingo.’ In answer to a series of questions such as “Have you been to university? Have you ever employed a cleaner? Are you female?”, participants either achieved a step forwards or backwards based upon the benefits or hindrances to their social positioning and as the game progressed stark divisions became all too clear. To the audience of mostly white academics, Newton concluded by proposing a challenge; that part of a university’s role is to expose inequalities and she encouraged the delegates to use the privilege she had just demonstrated, to reach out, to “pass the mic…”
Delegates then split off into four seminar/workshops, each concerned with a particular type of gendered body regulation and with a creative, crafts based approach, subverting the forms that these problems take. Workshops included developing new memes with Jess Drakett, to provide a counter message to the often deeply misogynistic content found on the internet. In ‘Cut It Out’ with Dr Lucy Thompson, participants created stencils to be used on clothing, that when worn leave no room for debate as to whether it’s OK to cat-call women and girls in the street. Dr Paula Singleton’s ‘Activist Barbie’ workshop involved dressing and painting dolls in order to combat the status quo of toxic beauty and gender standards. Finally Glen Jankowski and Dr Nova Deighton-Smith had their group designing ‘subverts’, reconfigurations of beauty magazine pages in order to subvert corporate beauty ideals and emphasise less damaging messages regarding body image.
The day was rounded off with the second keynote talk, presented by Professor Rosalind Gill, of City University London. Her talk, titled ‘Love your body but hate it too: Contradictory subjectivities in postfeminist times’ explored how cosmetics companies, diet food brands and even weight-loss groups, who arguably created the corporate body ideals that have such a deleterious effect upon women and girl’s self-esteem and mental health, are now co-opting the growing body positive discourse in order to continue to sell their products. A particularly troubling aspect of Gill’s discussion regarded the way in which these companies have capitalised upon the ‘love your body’ movement of recent years, by framing the damage caused by their advertisements in neoliberal terms, as being the problem of the individual who must now take responsibility to become resilient to the ‘hate your body’ messages their environment is saturated by.
The day was enjoyable, challenging, inspiring and troubling in equal measures. During closing questions, the topic-matter quickly swung to whether or not men experience similar problems as those being discussed, which rightly sparked a heated debate as to the legitimacy of this concern or its relevance at a feminist conference. Some delegates expressed their disquiet at their sense that many of the conversations being had were the same as those being had twenty years ago, ‘what’s really changed?’ Personally, I was encouraged by the way these issues were being approached at this event, using up-to-the-minute strategies, in particular the way online media can be used to bring feminist messages to a far broader audience.