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Fearing the Black Body

There is an obesity epidemic in this country and poor black women are particularly stigmatized as “diseased” and a burden on the public health care system. This is only the most recent incarnation of the fear of fat black women, which Sabrina Strings shows took root more than two hundred years ago.

Strings weaves together an eye-opening historical narrative ranging from the Renaissance to the current moment, analyzing important works of art, newspaper and magazine articles, and scientific literature and medical journals—where fat bodies were once praised—showing that fat phobia, as it relates to black women, did not originate with medical findings, but with the Enlightenment era belief that fatness was evidence of “savagery” and racial inferiority.

The author argues that the contemporary ideal of slenderness is, at its very core, racialized and racist.  Indeed, it was not until the early twentieth century, when racialized attitudes against fatness were already entrenched in the culture, that the medical establishment began its crusade against obesity. 

An important and original work, Fearing the Black Body argues convincingly that fat phobia isn’t about health at all, but rather a means of using the body to validate race, class, and gender prejudice.

The above is an exact extract from the following link: https://nyupress.org/9781479886753/fearing-the-black-body/

the sentiment of the flesh

Nothing falls out of the air, not even divine inspiration – especially for a student trying the work on a hot and lazy summer afternoon in Amsterdam.  I climbed on my bike and cycled along the Amstel river towards the Tuschinski theatre close to the Rembrandtplein. This beautiful art deco theatre was founded by the Polish tailor, Abraham Tuschinski in 1921. I was drawn by the red poster featuring two entangled bodies. The film, Le sentiment de la chair was showing – and the words, when I said it out loud had this poetic rhythm and warmth. I was curious.

It was not an easy movie to watch and some people walked out.  Héléna Onelli (Annabelle Hettmann) is studying medical illustration. Her fascination with anatomy extends to a rather strange enthusiasm for finding potential flaws in her own physiognomy, inside and out. Getting some unnecessary X-rays, she attracts the interest of young radiologist/lecturer Benoît Govian (Thibault Vincon) who does not find anything wrong with her.  Their mutual interest in human anatomy leads them to a torrid love affair. Héléna asks Benoît to go further in his exploration of her body and the lovers have no limits in their intercourse. Her need to keep pushing the boundaries of physical exploration both erotic and clinical awakens something in Benoît. Héléna’s capability to memorize every detail of Benoît’s body and Benoît’s irresistible curiosity to uncover the ‘interior’ secrets of Héléna’s body, even using a MRI scanner lead them to a dangerous journey with no limits…

At one stage professor Benoît remarks that “a thousand painters died not knowing the sentiment of the flesh. Many more will die not knowing”. This is a reference to French philosopher and art critic, Dennis Diderot, who wrote Essay on Painting in the eighteenth century. He maintains that the realism in a painting derives from form and that life originates from colour and writes:

“It has been said that the most beautiful color in the world was this lovely redness of innocence, youth, beauty, modesty and chastity…for indeed flesh is difficult to render; this unctuous white, even without being pale; this mixture of red and blue which imperceptibly perspires. This is blood and life which create the colorist’s despair. He who has acquired the feeling for flesh [le sentiment de la chair] has progressed a lot; the rest is nothing in comparison. Thousand painters have died without knowing flesh; thousand others will die without feeling it”. 

Driving back on my bike, disturbed but also intrigued, I thought “this is what theology should strive for “ – a sentiment for the flesh. Many theologians have died without truly knowing flesh.

The aim of my research since then has been to open “deeper and deeper inquiries” within theology regarding the body and to explore how the body and the experiences of the body can serve as a “grounding source of knowledge” in theology. The quest is for a theological anthropology that can reflect a deeper understanding of the rich and complex dimensions of bodily life. The quest is for a theological anthropology that has this sentiment of the flesh.

See also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC3PICgtTY0 and

talking about a revolution

I had the wonderful opportunity to speak at the Sexual Reformation conference at Stellenbosch University this week. Initially I didn’t really know what to talk about. In general I shy away to talk about sex and sexuality, and I must admit that I get bored talking about the gay-debate. Not because it isn’t relevant or of crucial importance. These are the grindstones on which we grind our theological knives regarding Scripture interpretation and human dignity. It’s just that throughout the years, I got tired trying to justify myself. striving to live a meaningful life with a certain integrity in this body of mine, to intolerant and hateful people. For a while now, I don’t need their permission in the effort to stay true to myself.

The other reason is that there is a very short and dark alley between sex and sexuality, moralising about what people should do with their genitals and oppression. We need to take a longer view, a broader scope – and that for is the journey of developing a deeper and richer understanding of the body and the textures of life.

And then on 11 April 2019, BBC news published an article, Ex-Pope Benedict XVI blames 1960s revolution for sex abuse.  He published a 5500 –word letter in the German Catholic magazine, Klerusblatt, lamenteng the 1960s as a time when previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely. He blames sexual films, images of nudity and “the clothing of that time” leading to “mental collapse” and “violence”. At the time of the sexual revolution, “Catholic moral theology suffered a collapse that rendered the Church defenceless against these changes in society”, he said. The sexual revolution led to paedophilia being “diagnosed as allowed and appropriate”. The promotion of a new, modern” Catholicism and the sexual revolution led to “homosexual cliques” in seminaries.

It had such a strong resonance with the social and political climate of the time when I was growing up and struggling (the Afrikaans word “wroeg” is more suitable)   with church, politics, identity and sexuality. A blast from the past – and for me it is unimaginable that someone can still hold such a position, which off course is also an indication of my own naivety.

This then was the trigger for my presentation – “On bodies and theologies – the aftermath of the sexual revolution”. In the blogs following I shall unpack it in more detail.

It seems that we still need to talk about a revolution….

Also see: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-47898562

ode to a lost place

I have been grieving

for many years now

Karoo house lost

When I walked into the solidity of your

stone walls, high wooden ceilings

neglected wooden floors,

your silent fire place

the smell of rat poison in corners of abandoned rooms

opening the latch of the back door with the turn of a shining brass knob

polished by generations of hands

walking out into the sun-drenched garden

stretching way back to the hedge of pomegranate trees

bordered by the sanded-in irrigation ditch

the ancient gnarled plum tree

the  rickety arbor of sweet crystal grapes

the ever-flowering General Gallieni rose bush

the smooth trunks of white guava trees

the strangling purple bougainvillea

I saw in the Karoo-dust gliding in

the warm light falling

through high hatch windows

a new beginning

simple living

friends eating around a long yellowwood table

on the cool back stoep

the memories of ancestors

of stories told

I have been grieving

for many years now

the grief for lost buildings

In the last few blogs I explored sense of place, identity and belonging ~ between the bodies we are and the spaces we move and make meaning in. It is often quite traumatic when this delicate sense of place is teared.

But what happens when a building, a home, a place of meaning is destroyed or disrupted? How do we grief for a building, a place that is lost? We experienced something of this as a collective when the Notre-Dame Gothic cathedral that stood guard over Paris for 850 years, was severely damaged and nearly destroyed by fire on Tuesday, 16 April. The BBC ran an article, The grief that comes from lost buildings, relating how the devastating fire has made Parisians think about identity, memory and shared culture.

This was similar to the 200-year-old former royal palace that housed Brazil’s national museum in Rio de Janeiro that was gutted by fire in September last year with flames tearing  through rooms containing more than 20 million artefacts. Very little survived.  Here are some narratives of loss:

“Watching it burn, there was a feeling of impotence and revolt. It was so imposing and had been there so long, no-one expected that one day it would just end.”

“It felt like a huge part of our bonding was being ripped away from us.”

Many of Syria’s most precious cultural sites, among these the ancient city of Palmyra were destroyed during its civil war:

“One could think it is selfish to look at the loss of ‘some stones’ and not the loss of people.

“It is a kind of regret. It is not the same grief as when people die,”

“It was a shocking event. Isis does not give any value to civilisation and human history. The feeling of sadness is even greater when you realise the country has not been only losing its future, but also a significant part of its past.”

Dresden’s Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) was destroyed by bombing in World War II and left in ruins for decades. After the reunification of Germany in 1990, its reconstruction became a metaphor for reconciliation. It was finished in the mid-2000s, mostly based on private donations. Some people moved back to the city because of their emotional attachment to the Frauenkirche.

“We were all very moved when the renovation started,” she says. “It was based on so much goodwill. There were workers from all over Europe, working all hours. It was beautiful to watch.”

“It was something no-one thought would be possible and it created a profound sense of something being “missing”.

Sense of place, belonging and identity are not merely abstract metaphysical concepts. It is intimately connected to buildings, to physical places ~ and the memories of relationships with other living creatures and non-living structures, within the spaces encapsulated in these buildings. Off course we can grief.

Also see: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-47952725?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.com/news/topics/cz553zpq0qdt/notre-dame-fire&link_location=live-reporting-story

So what do I do when I don’t belong?

So what do I do when I feel I don’t belong? I’ve read your blog last week that “sense of place is a tangible, sensory experience of the physical environment, or an embodied sensing of a physical place”, but please make it practical. I moved to another town to be with someone who supports me financially, but he hits me. Do I belong in this relationship, in this place? Or, we have to moved to another country so that my husband can study further and now we have to move again, but then I won’t be able to pursue my career any more, and it feels so far from my family. How do we make this decision? How do we create a home for us, find a place where we belong?

Perhaps I should have mentioned that in my opinion, the sense of first belonging is in your body – to experience a sense of ease in your body and a sense of acceptance of who you are in the body you have – in the body you are. If that sense of first belonging is not established from birth and re-affirmed through a sense of unconditional acceptance, also through adequate and appropriate touch, it’s difficult to do it in a reliable way later – but not impossible.

So if you have a feeling that you don’t belong, I would first explore the sense of belonging in your own body. But our bodies do make meaning of a certain place – through smell, texture, the quality of light, moving through a space, touch, taste – and the kind of relationships we form in that place. Sometimes we arrive at a point in our life, that who we are and who we want to be, does not correspond to the place we live in – or in narrative terms, where the landscape of action doesn’t support the landscape of consciousness/ identity (see there I wander into theory again…). And then perhaps, it’s time to move on.

Narrative psychologists Jill Freedman and Gene Combs define landscape of consciousness as “that imaginary territory where people plot new meanings, desires, intentions, beliefs, commitments, motivations, values, and the like that relate to their experience in the landscape of action. In other words, in the landscape of consciousness, people reflect on the implications of experiences storied in the landscape of action.” Real and vivid stories should make meaning, and this meaning is developed in the landscape of consciousness.

I would imagine that there should be some kind of equilibrium between place and identity, between the bodies we are and the spaces we move and make meaning in. If that is teared and disrupted then a new space should be found to make new meaning in. Different kinds of violence (physical, emotional, economic, political etc.) can also lead to different kinds of displacement – uprooted and dislodged by force, which is often very traumatic.

The crucial component that should be explored when trying to figure out if you belong in a certain place, is the quality of relationships you are in. If these relationships do not support making sense of your life in a specific place, then perhaps it’s time to move on…

On a sense of place ~ belonging, displacement and immigration

The making of meaning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Events happen in a specific context, in a real place and we make sense of what happens to us in that space. We form a sense of place as our bodies move through different spaces (in my model for the embodied sense of meaning, I call it spatiality).

How do we form a sense of place? Similar to the idea of spatiality, humans’ sense of place has been driven by an interconnectedness as a result of globalisation, the instantaneous availability of information through technology, receding the boundaries between places (and here it also refers to the sense of a virtual place in a virtual world), and increased mobility, with people experiencing a multiple sense of place. Sense of place is comprised by features such as the physical environment, meaningfulness, rootedness, emotional attachment, place satisfaction, place identity and belonging, with a crucial focus on relationships (Eyles & Williams 2008). Sense of place is a tangible, sensory experience of the physical environment, or an embodied sensing of a physical place. Sense of place relates to the health and well-being of the bodies within that place, and, I would argue, to the theological concept of human flourishing.

A variety of factors can influence this sensed relationship between bodies and place like age, ethnicity, time, residential status as well as the physical place itself (DeMiglio & Williams 2008). It takes time for people to establish a new sense of place as a result of events such as immigration and displacement. This process can happen based on what is happening in the present, while recalling the past. The geographers Kearns and Gesler write that sense of place is determined in the interactive relationship ‘between daily experiences of a (local) place and perceptions of one’s place in the world … and can be used to interpret a range of situated health effects that imply a link between mind, body and society’.

Places also have multiple meanings and the possibility of multiple associations connected to it based on activities, personal experience as well as social history, but these are closely attached to language practices. The use of different languages could potentially lead to the division of an ‘old self’ and ‘new self’ e.g. amongst immigrants (Taylor 2010). The issue for many immigrants is how they could ‘lose their foreign-ness while retaining a sense of self … an elastic balance between rigidity and self-effacement?’ (Craith 2012). This issue is an interplay with the relation between place and identity, of belonging somewhere, of being an outsider or insider. The quest for belonging and being at home is often tested when there is a threat to personal safety through violence.

A space is first of all connected to a specific, local place where belonging and attachment, a person’s sense of place heavily impacts on their well-being in a concrete and specific life-world. Within theological anthropology the notion of human flourishing embraces well-being and expands it, where human flourishing is to allow yourself and other bodies, human and non-human to thrive within the relationships one have to other creatures and institutions, through wise action and in accountability to God, in the way we live in the bodies that we have and the bodies that we are.

How do human rights smell?

Is this how human rights smell?

The stench from the decaying corpses of animals in a pit nearby whiffed into the bus where we, a group of theologians, church workers and community activists from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya were parked on a manmade hillock overlooking the dump site on the outskirts of Mamelodi township, and still further away from the affluent east of Pretoria, South Africa.  It was not safe for us to go any closer. The supervisor of the site heaved himself into the bus, recounting the layout and workings of the dump site, his words mingling with the stench outside. He tells of the different groups recycling different kinds of waste, how much they earn per kilogram compared to what the recycling company receives (and I thought the company did the recycling themselves). He tells of people giving birth on the site, of occasional police raids and the people, mostly illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe, disappearing for a day or two only to return and make their livelihood on the site. He tells of fights between the different groupings on the site and how dangerous it can be. There is a certain desperation in his voice, but also an empathy. A participant from Zimbabwe sitting next to me, explained that these immigrants were treated as garbage in Zimbabwe, mainly coming from a group that opposed the governing party there…and now they work with garbage in these desperate circumstances.

Is this how justice smells?  The question implies that justice, and the effect of justice in a particular space is a bodily enterprise. So how does justice smell, and specifically spatial justice? I am not quite sure, but what I do sense that it is not only about the smelling of justice, but also the tasting of it, the feelings of it, the speaking of it, the hearing of it; the whole bodily experiencing of justice in a certain space. It is the embodied sensing of meaning in a space where justice is strived for.

This is an extract from an article I wrote a while ago: How does justice smell? Reflections on space and place, justice and the body. https://hts.org.za/index.php/HTS/article/view/3492