We’ve taken the not-that-difficult-given-the-pandemic decision to postpone our conference until all our participants can travel to attend, and it’s safe to meet. But while we’re very disappointed that the conference will not be going ahead in April as planned, it will go ahead! So watch this space …
Across two Saturdays in November, the Body, Self and Family team put on a series of health and beauty-themed events as part of the Being Human Festival 2019.
Made Up: Health and Beauty Secrets Past and Present consisted of three events:
- Beauty School Drop In – A historical beauty salon with talks and activities
- Faces – An exhibition of changing Essex style showcasing photographs and stories collected at Beauty School Drop In.
- Glow Up – A zine-making workshop with Grrrl Zine Fair artist Lu Williams
You can find out more about each event’s programme here.
We had a fantastic time collecting photographs and hearing people’s stories of favourite jumpers, sharing going out tops with university housemates, and changing feelings around body image and self-confidence.
At Beauty School Drop In, Mark Anderson and Fabiola Creed gave wonderful talks about men’s changing hair styles and tanning respectively. In Mark’s talk we heard how salons changed to incorporate men who wanted more than a short back and sides, providing screens to protect their privacy. We also learnt how men seeking the expertise of female hairdressers disrupted the homosocial spaces of hairdressing as they went to salons and barbers hired women. Fabiola told us about the changing perception of sunbed users and tanning, and brought along a Sunbed Sindy doll from c.1980 to highlight her point about the mainstreaming of sunbeds. This prompted some in the room to share their own sunbed experiences, laughing about the rush to use sunbeds with the freshest bulbs!
The following Saturday we exhibited the photographs and recordings we collected at Beauty School Drop In at Firstsite Gallery. We had a great turn out – including four women who met at school aged 11 who were reminiscing about what each of them taught the group about make-up!
The exhibition played host to a zine-making workshop by the fantastic Lu Williams of Grrrl Zine Fair, who helped us make zines reflecting what beauty and style meant to us.
At each of the events we asked people to fill out short questionnaires asking them:
- What hygiene item could you not live without?
- What is your favourite beauty product, past and/or present?
- What does beauty mean to you?
- What have you learnt about the history of beauty and make-up?
The questionnaires were inspired by Mass Observation’s 1992 Personal Hygiene Directive which asked some similar questions, and also inspired by The Museum of Transology’s use of everyday objects such as lipstick to challenge the idea that gender is fixed, binary and biologically determined (on at Brighton Museum until 5 January 2020). The questionnaires made up part of the exhibition- with people adding to it throughout the day.
I tallied up the responses and can reveal that deodorant and soap proved the most vital hygiene items of our visitors, and face cream was the favourite beauty product!
The questionnaires elicited some fascinating responses regarding what beauty means, from ‘Being happy in yourself’ to ‘Maximising my perceived reproductive potential’!
Thanks again to everyone who participated and to the Being Human Festival, without whom these events could not have taken place. For more on make-up see Kate’s brilliant blog on fashion and make-up in the Women’s Liberation Movement, and Daisy’s on 1990s transgender beauty.
If you’re looking for something to listen to while reading or doing your own make-up – check out our Spotify playlist!
This month, the Body, Self and Family project are running a series of exciting events as part of the Being Human Festival, the only nationwide festival celebrating the humanities in the UK. Titled ‘Made Up: Health and Beauty Secrets Past and Present’, our event series includes ‘Beauty School Drop In’, a historical beauty salon where visitors will be able to archive their past looks, hear historical talks and get their nails done, and ‘Faces’, a photography and oral history exhibition documenting changing Essex style. At the exhibition, it will be our pleasure to host Lu Williams of Grrrl Zine Fair, who will be running a zine workshop. Organized by our Senior Postdoctoral Research Assistant Daisy Payling, the events aim to illustrate the important part that make-up and beauty has played in people’s lives, past and present, as both a form of creative self-expression and a means to blend in. These events will touch on debates within feminism about the value of make-up and beauty in women’s everyday lives. Members of the Women’s Liberation Movement, for example, have since told how they negotiated these debates when considering their personal fashion and beauty choices in 1970s and 1980s Britain. By exploring these individual negotiations, we develop a greater sense of how ideas relating to health, beauty and politics intersected in women’s day-to-day lives. We can then understand more explicitly how the personal is political.
From the late 1960s onwards, some members of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in Britain argued that make-up reinforced patriarchal norms of femininity. This perspective was aligned with a broader second-wave feminist critique of women’s depiction in society. From 1969 to 1972, members of the London Women’s Liberation Workshop protested at the annual Miss World beauty competition, held at the Royal Albert Hall. Picketing outside and later invading the stage, the protestors argued that the competition dehumanized women by focusing only on their beauty and sexuality. Such contests encouraged women to conform to restrictive and often unachievable beauty standards. ‘We’re not beautiful or ugly!’ protest signs on the picket line stated. ‘We’re angry!’.
Some WLM members rejected normative beauty standards through their personal fashion choices. Writing in 1996, Sue O’Sullivan, a London Women’s Liberation Workshop member and subsequent lesbian health campaigner, described how she adopted loose-fitting, functional clothing. She felt that her outfits undermined the fashion industry’s manipulation of women’s insecurities. In a 1978 edition of feminist magazine Spare Rib, author Angela Carter described her rejection of high heels. Carter believed that the ‘ill-balanced, juddering walk’ they generated recreated women’s unstable, repressive position in society.
Others members of the WLM, however, promoted make-up and beauty as an empowering exercise – a means to enhance their feelings of personal strength and to express themselves. In 1969, the grassroots Women’s Liberation periodical Shrew documented a women’s group meeting at which several members defended make-up. One discussant stated that make-up helped her to feel less ‘defenceless and inadequate’. Another asserted that she applied cosmetics to enhance her self-confidence. She felt that make-up was ‘liberating’ because it allowed her to cover up a severe form of acne that made her feel self-conscious. These promotions of make-up were not well-received elsewhere in the WLM. Sue O’Sullivan stated that activists who extolled these views were simply internalizing repressive ideals of femininity.
Numerous women involved in Women’s Liberation politics were aware of the Movement’s divided attitudes to make-up. Many felt compelled to negotiate the terms of the debate when making their everyday fashion and beauty choices. Interviewed in 1990, activist Janet Rees stated that she had been aware of the feminist rejection of normative beauty standards. Rees recalled, however, that she refused to give up make-up and perfume because she liked feeling feminine. From 1974 to 1976, Ruthie Smith was the vocalist and saxophonist in feminist band The Stepney Sisters. Smith defined herself as a ‘bit of a rebel’ in the band. ‘All the women in the band wore dungarees’, she recalled, ‘and I wore, well I still wear, my Laura Ashley skirts’. Rees and Smith suggested that they felt pressure to conform to a specific standard of feminist fashion. Such standards rejected the forms of feminine self-expression that they most enjoyed. In continuing to dress in a feminine way, they could rebel against the facets of the WLM that they deemed to be most restrictive – the ‘thought police in the women’s movement’, as Smith termed it – whilst continuing to promote the feminist politics that they strongly believed in.
Media reporting in the late 1960s and early 1970s indicates that individuals beyond the WLM also held ideas about how its members dressed. Reporting on the first Women’s Liberation Movement conference, held at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1970, The Times stated that many attendees were long-haired, young women wearing trousers and maxi coats. Writer Jenny Diski later asserted that this “look” was routinely associated with youthful rebellion in 1960s Britain. Other media reports, however, drew on the feminist rejection of feminine clothing to develop a stereotype oriented around tropes like “bra-burning” and “man-hating”. This stereotype homogenized and dehumanized the women involved in the WLM, and its perpetuation in the press often incited hostility against its members. In 1972, the Daily Mirror quoted one member of the public, who called for ‘male prestige’ to be reinstated in Britain. ‘Those bra-burning birds are in for a hiding’, he asserted.
Some WLM activists, however, saw the stereotyping of WLM members’ appearance and fashions as a means bolster their political power and further feminist causes. The late Diana Warren-Holland founded Portsmouth Rape Crisis in 1981. Warren-Holland told of the creative ways in which she manipulated assumptions about what feminists looked like when presenting herself at meetings with potential funders. ‘I thought, I’d better not wear these rough old jeans’, she recalled, ‘I’d better wear a skirt and some heels and a jacket and they went “ooh, I didn’t think that you’d look like that”’. Warren-Holland felt that ‘they thought feminist women looked very different’. In participating in this form of ‘myth-busting’, Warren-Holland ensured that ‘the money started to come in’. She believed that her brief conformity to standards of feminine dress enabled her to require the funding necessary to maintain a community-based organization that explicitly promoted feminist values. ‘Of course, underneath I was still the same’, Diane stated in 2011. ‘Slice me through and there’s still the feminist’.
Through ‘Made Up: Beauty Secrets Past and Present’, we hope to encourage people to share their own stories and images of what make-up, beauty, fashion and self-expression means to them. We want to better understand and therefore celebrate the role that self-presentation has played across people’s lives. Beauty, fashion and make-up practices are often trivialized, despite the important role they play in people’s day-to-day life. In the WLM, make-up and fashion served as a significant point of contention for many of its members. Regardless of which side of the debate its members positioned themselves on, their everyday fashion and beauty choices were influenced by their desire to not only express themselves but also articulate their political values. In rejecting make-up, some WLM members critiqued the normative beauty standards perpetuated in Britain’s patriarchal society. Others, however, saw wearing feminine clothing as a means to highlight their individual identification with Women’s Liberation politics and further the provision of vital feminist causes. Through their fashion and beauty choices, women were able to enact their personal and political power.
More information about ‘Made Up: Beauty Secrets and Past and Present’
can be found here. Although all events are free, we strongly
recommend that you register using the links provided. We look forward to seeing
Kate Mahoney, November 2019
 Sue O’Sullivan, I Used to Be Nice: Sexual Affairs (London: Continuum, 1996), p. 49.
 Angela Carter, ‘The Message in the Spike Heel’, Spare Rib, No. 61 (August 1977), pp. 15-17 (p. 15).
 J. A., ‘This article on make-up is based upon a recent W11 discussion’, Shrew: Women’s Liberation Workshop (November/December 1969), p. 7.
 O’Sullivan, I Used to Be Nice, p. 18.
 Janet Rees, quoted in Michelene Wandor, Once A Feminist: Stories of a Generation (London: Virago, 1990), p. 103.
 Ruthie Smith, personal interview (London, 12 September 2016).
 The Times, ‘Militancy in the Kitchens’ (2 March 1970), p. 4.
 Jenny Diski, The Sixties (London: Profile Books, 2009), p. 83.
 Daily Mirror, ‘The Lads Join a Pancake Race to Fight for Men’s Lib’ (11 February 1972), p. 7.
 Diane Warren Holland, personal interview (Portsmouth, 15 September 2011).
Join us this November for three events exploring health and beauty in post-war Britain. Part of the Being Human Festival’s ‘Discoveries and Secrets’ series, these events will give audiences the chance discover how historical beauty culture has shaped understandings of body image and wellbeing, and reflect on how their own grooming practices inform their sense of self.
Beauty School Drop In
Saturday 16 November 2019, 10:00-16:00
One Colchester Hub, 81 Culver Street East, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1LF
Visit our historical beauty salon and discover how women have used hair and make-up to express themselves from the 1950s to now. The salon will highlight changes to women’s lives, celebrate the diversity of women’s health experiences, and investigate ideas around femininity: demystifying the beauty secret.
At the event you can join craftivist activities and hear short talks from Fabiola Creed on the history of tanning and Mark Anderson on men’s changing hair styles. Tell us your stories about the role beauty plays in your life and bring photographs documenting your changing style. If all this wasn’t enough you can get your nails done on the day by trans activist and nail artist Charlie Craggs.
We will also be collecting new and un-used toiletries throughout the day to donate to One Colchester’s Hygiene Bank and help fight hygiene poverty. If you can, please bring items such as sanitary pads & tampons, shampoo & conditioner, face wash, cleanser & creams, body wash, body lotion, deodorant, toothpaste & toothbrushes.
Register for updates.
Faces: An Exhibition of Changing Essex Style
Saturday 23 November 2019, 10:00-16:30
Learning Studio, Firstsite Gallery, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1JH
At this exhibition discover the changing faces of Essex style. Take a look at photographs of local people’s experiments with fashion, hair and make-up, and listen to audio recordings collected at our historical beauty salon: Beauty School Drop In. The exhibition will highlight changes to women’s lives, celebrate the diversity of women’s health experiences, and investigate ideas around femininity: demystifying the beauty secret.
Join us to discover changes in self-expression and style across generations and to hear more about the history of local women’s everyday lives. Drop in at any time, but please register!
Glow Up: Zine Workshop
Saturday 23 November 2019, 12:00-14:00
Learning Studio, Firstsite Gallery, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1JH
Join in this creative workshop with Southend-based artist Lu Williams from Grrrl Zine Fair. Get hands-on and investigate health and beauty ideals promoted by social media and magazines. Reflect on diverse experiences and alternative uses of make-up and find out how grooming has been used for empowerment throughout history. ‘Glow Up’ is also an opportunity for you to learn how to make a zine (DIY magazine), take a look at the Grrrl Zine Library and discover zine culture and history.
The workshop will take place in the ‘Faces’ exhibition at Firstsite. Places are limited, please sign up to avoid missing out!
We’re looking forward to seeing you at one or more of these events!
The event series is part of the Being Human festival, the UK’s only national festival of the humanities, taking place 14–23 November. Led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with the Arts & Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. For further information please see beinghumanfestival.org.
University of Essex, 16-18 April 2020
What is the history of “everyday health” in the postwar world, and where might we find it? This conference (University of Essex, 16-18 April 2020) invites participants to explore the history of gender, selfhood, and health from multiple perspectives. It has four main aims: to examine how gender, alongside class, ‘race’, and sexuality, mediated experiences of health and wellbeing; to interrogate the reasons for differences in gendered experiences in different regions of the world; to critically assess the concept of ‘everyday health’; and to develop and share methodologies that allow us to write histories of subjectivity and embodiment from the bottom-up.
We particularly welcome papers that consider:
- What “everyday health” means for different genders and in different contexts;
- Methodological challenges of studying gender, subjectivity, and “everyday health” in this period;
- The intersection of gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality and age in individual and collective experiences of health;
- Approaches to transgender health in historical perspective;
- Comparative, transnational, and non-western experiences of health;
- Different disciplinary perspectives on the history of gender, subjectivity, and “everyday health”;
- The politics and practice of engaging with different publics on these themes.
We also welcome papers on case studies related to particular aspects of health, and from other disciplines that take a historical perspective.
The conference will be free to attend, including refreshments and lunches, but attendees will be required to make their own breakfast and dinner arrangements. We hope to offer a limited number of bursaries to PGRs and ECRs to contribute towards costs of travel and accommodation, but this is dependent on obtaining further funding. We aim to make this a child-friendly conference, but are unable to provide childcare on site. We will provide a room where carers and children can sit if it is necessary to take a break from panels. Keynote speakers will be announced with the final programme.
Submission of abstracts
- Abstracts and queries should be submitted to Georgina Randall at email@example.com
- The deadline for submission of abstracts is 5pm, Tuesday 10th December 2019. PLEASE NOTE THAT THE DEADLINE HAS BEEN EXTENDED TO ACCOMMODATE THE UCU STRIKE ACTION. We will confirm speakers by Thursday 16th January 2020.
- We welcome proposals for individual papers and for panels.
- Abstracts for individual papers of 20 mins should be 500 words or less. Please include on your submission name, institutional affiliation (if any), email address, pronouns, and whether your paper is likely to include content that is unsuitable for children. Please indicate if you are a PGR or an ECR and would like to be considered for a bursary. Please also indicate if you are unable to attend any specific days of the conference.
- Proposals for panels consisting of 3 x 20 minutes papers should include a 500 word abstract for each paper, plus a panel title and short description (no more than 500 words) explaining the relationship between papers and how they relate to panel themes. Please include on your submission names, institutional affiliation (if any), email addresses, pronouns of all speakers, and whether papers are likely to include content that is unsuitable for children. Please indicate if any panel speakers are PGRs or ECRs and would like to be considered for a bursary. Please also indicate if you are unable to attend any specific days of the conference.
- We welcome papers in non-traditional formats, and papers that deal with teaching, public engagement, and related issues. If you have an idea for a paper but you are not sure whether it is suitable, please get in touch!
On 2 April 2019 we had the pleasure of working with year 10 and 11 students from Essex schools at the Digital Arts Festival on campus. The theme this year was ‘Challenge Your Reality.’ We ran two workshops called ‘Am I Normal? Body Image from Agony Aunts to Instagram’ with the aim of encouraging the students to think about how teenagers in the past understood their realities and offered challenges to them.
First we introduced the students to the idea of agony aunts. Jackie magazine ran from 1964 until 1993. In the 1970s it was Britain’s best-selling teenage magazine with sales figures rising to 600,000. During the 1970s, Jackie published a mix of fashion and beauty tips, gossip, short stories and comic strips. The centre pages of the magazine usually contained a pull-out poster of a popular band or film star, and there were often humorous interviews with pop stars. But one of the most popular features of teen magazines were the problem pages or the agony aunt column. Problem pages were where young people could write in and ask any question they didn’t want to ask their parents or friends. Even if they never wrote in themselves, people read problem pages avidly either to find amusing stories, or to hope that someone else had asked a question they wanted to know the answer to.
We gave the students an opportunity to test their agony aunt skills with a quiz. You can have a go here: https://www.sporcle.com/games/BSF/could-you-be-a-1970s-agony-aunt-2
This led to discussions about the similarities and differences between teenage life in the 1970s and now, and conversations about where young people today go for advice.
We talked about how the way we use social media has some similarities to how agony aunts operated. Sometimes we can learn useful things, but other times unrealistic expectations of beauty can be reinforced.
To counter the negatives, the students drew some fantastic pictures of what they would like to see on their Instagram feeds to Challenge Their Reality.
We had a great day – thanks to the organisers and all the students who took part!
- Daisy Payling, April 2019
Since November 2018, the Body, Self and Family project has been hosting numerous public engagement events as part of the series ‘Seeing Red: Periods and Protest’. Initially launched in conjunction with the 2018 Being Human Festival, ‘Seeing Red’ draws on women’s experiences of menstruation and activism in post-war Britain to consider why period poverty remains an issue today.
Statistics published by Plan International in 2017 highlight the fact that one in ten girls in Britain are unable to afford sanitary items, twelve percent of girls have had to improvise sanitary wear due to affordability issues, using socks and tissues instead, and one in five girls have changed to a less suitable menstrual products due to their cost. Girls who cannot afford sanitary items often feel unable to go to school when they are on their period. They therefore miss lessons and feeling less confident in their academic abilities. Recent cuts to state support, diminishing wages and increased living costs have meant that period poverty has become increasingly prominent. Foodbanks have reported that more and more women have started using them to access sanitary pads and tampons.
In recent years, campaigning around period poverty has become more visible. Campaigns and initiatives including #FreePeriods, the Red Box Project and Bloody Good Period are currently doing incredible work to raise awareness and donate sanitary items to those who need them most. Period poverty, however, is not a new issue. For years, women have described being unable to afford sanitary items, attributing their expense, in part, to their taxation as a luxury item. As historians, we are keen to understand why period poverty has only recently become an issue subject to public discussion. When compiling statistics around period poverty, Plan International also recorded girls’ broader attitudes towards menstruation. They found that nearly half of girls aged between 14 and 21 in Britain are embarrassed by their periods. Through ‘Seeing Red’, we want to highlight how feelings such as embarrassment and shame are closely related to the history of menstruation.
Body, Self and Family has explored how the shame and embarrassment associated with periods can be historically situated through a series of different events. On November 15 2018, ‘Seeing Red’ was launched with the panel discussion ‘Periods and Protest in Post-war Britain’ at the University of Essex (Colchester Campus). The event brought together campaigners, activists and historians to consider the importance of health activism past and present and champion ways of working together to eradicate period poverty. Speakers included historian Dr Tracey Loughran, who drew on rarely-used archival sources and new oral history interviews to consider women and girls’ experiences of menstruation across the twentieth century. Tracey argued that we need to know what women and girls have thought and felt to understand why it can be so difficult to change entrenched attitudes around periods, therefore emphasising why activism in this field is so important. Activist, educator and Mighty Grrl Movement-founder Lauren Mittell spoke passionately of the need to empower children and young people to express their views and campaign for social change. Lauren runs female empowerment groups for girls aged 9-11 which build self-esteem, teach women’s history and fundraise. Chella Quint, founder of #periodpositive – a campaign promoting menstrual education in schools – highlighted how myths surrounding periods continue to be promoted in society today. The event reinforced the value of working with young people when campaigning against period poverty, drawing on their voices and experiences to consider how historical representations of menstruation continue to influence their everyday lives.
Here at the Body, Self and Family project, we have also aimed to empower girls to use their experiences to call for an end to period poverty and understand that periods are nothing to be ashamed of. We have done so by hosting numerous ‘Seeing Red’ workshops at local schools and Girlguiding groups across Colchester and Southend-on-Sea. Through the workshops, we have invited over one hundred girls aged from 10-16 to examine historical sources relating to periods, including advertisements for menstrual products in magazines and extracts from our Body, Self and Family oral history interviews. The participants are then asked to draw on these sources to produce posters that raise awareness about period poverty. The workshops have simultaneously served as a forum where girls can share their experiences in a supportive environment. What has been striking is how these experiences so clearly demonstrate the endurance of concerns surrounding periods, past and present. Girls continue to worry about what will happen if their periods start at school and they do not have any sanitary items, or if boys end up finding out about them. The workshops have also illustrated, however, how young women and girls support one another, making sure that their friends have sanitary items when they need them and talking to each other about how they feel.
We have been blown away by the creativity displayed in the posters produced by our workshop participants, many of which were displayed at a Seeing Red exhibition at the Beecroft Art Gallery, Southend-on-Sea on 24 November 2018. The exhibition encouraged intergenerational discussion about periods, with many of the women who visited sharing their own reflections and recollections. The exhibition resulted in the Beecroft Art Gallery setting up a Red Box Project donation point, ensuring that they now collect menstrual products for girls in Southend who cannot afford them. ‘Seeing Red: Periods and Protest’ has reiterated the significant role that history can play in inspiring activism and social change in the present day. The event series has also emphasised the importance of recognising young people’s voices when seeking to instigate change, an invaluable lesson that we will continue to endorse as the project’s public engagement work progresses.
- Kate Mahoney, April 2019
On 9 November 2018 the Body Self and Family project hosted the first of two interlinked workshops on the theme of ‘Gender, Body and Selfhood’. The aim of these workshops is to explore the challenging questions that investigation of subjectivity and embodiment raise for researchers, including around how best to understand the interrelations of different aspects of identity, conceptualise the relationship between representation and experience, and negotiate the constraining effects of social structures on individual and collective agency.
The workshops explore how historians of different periods and specialisms, as well as scholars in other disciplines, approach these questions. Participants reflect on their own practices within the context of disciplinary assumptions, limitations, and opportunities. The sessions therefore encourage sharing of different approaches as well as debate across disciplinary boundaries, and in this way contribute to developing methodologies to probe fundamental questions for scholars of gender, body and self.
Workshop 1 included panels on identity and intersectionality (Laura Doan, University of Manchester; Isabel Davis, Birkbeck, University of London; Rochelle Rowe, UCL); qualitative and quantitative approaches across disciplines (Caroline Rusterholz, University of Cambridge; Sundari Anitha, University of Lincoln); and local, regional and transnational identities (Daisy Payling, University of Essex; Rebecca Jennings, UCL). I have attempted to gather my thoughts on recurrent themes in these panels and the discussions that followed; there is a lot more that could be said, and I would love to hear your thoughts.
Intersectionality One recurring question is whether ‘intersectionality’ and ‘identity’ are still useful terms. For some, uses of ‘intersectionality’ often end up emphasising divisions and a hierarchy of victimhood, whereas for others ‘intersectionality’ is still an essential concept to undo the erasures of the past. The embodied self can stand against these erasures – but we require highly nuanced understandings of the different possible types and layers of erasure in order to recapture what, exactly, might have been erased. Many of those present recalled instances in which they had interpreted the stories of their subjects/ participants using a particular framework, only to later realise – either in dialogue with a participant, or on subsequent re-reading of source material – that the initial reading had little in common with the teller’s own interpretation of events, and had closed off other avenues of interpretation. Life history can allow us to escape these fixities and to think about how identities change over time, but only if we are sufficiently open to starting with the life itself, rather than our idea of what that life was or meant – how can we achieve that openness while acknowledging the quest for meaning that drives our research?
Indeterminacy Indeterminacy stands in an odd relation to ‘identity’ and ‘intersectionality’. On the one hand, the concept exists as a way of expressing that which cannot be nailed down, and a means of emphasising the fluid nature of experience. On the other hand, it is a term that has attained prominence within certain fields of scholarship precisely as a result of concerns with ‘identity’. Its origins will always lie within it, and perhaps should not be transcended; what looks to one person like acknowledging complexity is to another the denial of rallying points necessary for political action. Uncertainty can be liberating and/or frustrating. But as scholars, how can we capture that state of being/ not being, knowing/ not knowing? The nature of articulation is to pin down meaning, and we often perceive this as ‘bringing to light’ – but what if it constitutes a reduction, a narrowing down, of experience? Is the only alternative not to analyse? Suggested alternatives included representing via the visual rather than text, or analysing actions rather than words – both exciting possibilities for scholarship, but does this simply displace the site of articulation from the thing itself to its representation, rather than avoid the language trap entirely? If so, then how to we bridge the gap between our tactical reasons for trying to pin down what we study, and the messiness of lived experience? Certainly, we need to consider whether current debates about indeterminacy would have made much sense to people in the past, and whether we are now more or less content with indeterminacy than other peoples may have been.
Subjectivity In some disciplines, ‘subjectivity’ is already yesterday’s buzzword; in others, it is still a maligned threat to be staved off at all costs. Those disciplines threatened by subjectivity usually simultaneously deny the subjective and embodied experience of the researcher, and implicitly hold up the white, male, heterosexual, middle-class scholar as the only researcher able to be neutral – the very embodiment of neutrality, in fact. One perverse result of this emphasis is that these disciplines worship biography, while denying the value of autobiography. Against these claims, the insertion of the self into research becomes both a radical act, and an ethical necessity. Those methodologies that involve a face-to-face relationship might seem to necessitate this insertion of the self, but it remains easy to write the self out of the published research. What, then, does it mean to insist on the self? Is this a continuation of the process of recognition that often leads people to become participants in research – ‘I will participate, because you are like me, and can help to tell my story’? What kinds of recognition are at stake here? Finally, how should historians who work with sources produced by the long-dead try to understand subjectivity?
Transhistoricism If we shift our focus to embodied experience, this raises the possibility that elements of some experiences – (un)pregnancy, desire, grief, trauma – remain substantially the same over time, because they are lived through the body as much as interpreted by the mind. As a historian I am troubled by this possibility because for decades one of my core beliefs – personal as much as professional – is that context determines who and what we are and how we can think and feel, and therefore that people in different times inevitably experience superficially similar events in different ways. Like many others before me, I first led questioned this tenet because of personal (embodied) experience, but I have found it difficult to know how to negotiate this questioning in my professional activities. I found the suggestion that there are different ‘textures’ of transhistorical experience intriguing – this is one of the many areas I would like to explore further at our next workshop.
On 28 June, we took part in the Digital Arts Festival held on the University of Essex campus. The Digital Arts Festival provides an opportunity for year 10 students (aged 14-15) to experience interactive workshops and activities designed to explore the digital, creative and cultural arts.
Our workshop was called ‘Body Image: Past, Present and Future.’ It explored how women’s bodies have been presented in traditional and social media, and encouraged students to unpack the changing notions of health and beauty that contribute to our understandings of body image.
We began the session by asking students to draw their idea of a healthy body. Their drawings tended to show muscle-bound, slim figures. We discussed why this was their ‘go-to’ image for health.
Following this, Daisy gave a brief presentation about how women’s bodies were presented in magazines throughout the 1960s. She explained how health was often connected to beauty in quite narrow and restrictive ways, and how magazines could give contradictory advice about weight, dieting and exercise. The students were then asked to choose from pre-cut magazine pieces to create a new healthy body using collage techniques. They had a choice of body types and behaviours. We tried to make these as diverse as possible, although we were restricted by what appeared in magazines from the 1960s-90s, i.e. there were quite a lot of young, slim, white women.
While students were making their collages, Kate and Daisy walked around the room and spoke to students about the choices they were making. They talked about the images of women present in the media they consume and how these influenced their ideas of health and body image.
We learned how unfamiliar they were with physical magazines, and the extent to which Instagram and Snapchat shaped their perspectives, not always negatively.
Below you can see some of their creations, or ‘Franken-bodies’.
Students highlighted behaviours such as healthy eating and staying active and a number mentioned strength over size. One used an image of an older woman and made the point that people can be healthy at any age. A number highlighted the importance of emotional and mental health, and some found the choice of bodies available limiting. One of the students raised the point that she would have liked to have been able to choose from an even wider range of body types for her healthy body collage, specifically that she would have liked to have seen stretch marks represented and shown to be normal and healthy.
You can see more of the collages at our Instagram account @body_self_family. If you want to make your own healthy Franken-body please do tag us and let us know what health means to you!