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A Feminist Reading of Phillip Lopate’s “Portrait of My Body”


Bodies interest me, but Lopate’s body, in “Portrait of My Body” – not so much. I confess to an interest in women’s bodies – or women’s experiences IN their bodies, the way they come to own (or not) their bodies, moreso than men’s bodies. I’ve read Sallie Tisdale and Judith Ortiz Cofer, Pam Houston, Judith Hooper, and the haunting Lucy Grealy. For years I assigned Margaret Atwood’s “The Female Body” to my first year composition students, as well as Sallie Tisdale’s “A Weight Women Carry,” even when female students unabashedly admitted that Tisdale had no credibility because she confesses to being content with her size 14 body.

The body can’t be a neutral site — it can’t escape gendered politics, and so thinking about the way women struggle to love their own bodies in a culture that constantly monitors, labels, markets, and punishes their bodies is what I do all the time. Thinking and writing about Lopate’s essay, where he carefully inspects his own body, can’t happen without placing it in the context of all those women’s voices inside my head.

At least Lopate owns his body. It is fully his, unlike Atwood who preludes her essay with a quote from the Michigan Quarterly Review where a writer (presumably male) calls the female body, “this capacious topic.” Atwood begins her essay with her own body, but names it her “limping topic,” her “topic with back problems,” her “near-sighted,” “badly-behaved topic.” Her body diminished to a “topic” only, she is unable to extract it from the language used to name it, the accessories required of it, its functionality as a cheap peddler of clothes and shaving cream, hard liquor and diamonds.

What I notice, first then, about Lopate’s essay, is that he has the privilege of considering his body outside the dictates of other cultural readings of it. In this essay, his body, unlike all of the women’s bodies I have read about, stands by itself in the limelight.


Lopate does briefly acknowledge that his body lives in the context of a wider audience after first admitting that “I do not like myself at all, but out of stubborn pride, I act like a man who does.” This pretense makes him appear “for all the world” as a “poised, contented” man. Then he gloats: “What a wonder to be so misread!” This sentence deserves its mark of punctuation. When he’s misjudged, it is a misreading that confers on him the positive, self-confident traits that culture associates with successful white men. What Lopate lacks in self-love, the world confers on him. It never occurs to him what a privilege this is.

When Lopate talks about the authority he gains by being tall, I can’t help but recall my own struggle as a taller-than-average teenage girl and young women, how I slumped my shoulders so I could appear shorter among the circle of my friends, their whispers down below, out of reach to me. Or how I fretted over wearing heels: when it was okay, when it wasn’t (which was most of the time), depending on the stature of the current boyfriend; how my father whispered “stand up straight” whenever he was out in public with me; how all the grown-ups in my life assured me that one day I would be glad I was tall because women who are tall are the last ones to get fat in middle age.

About his short friends, “brilliant men” who “deserved” his respect, Lopate confesses an urge to  “rumple their heads,” that annoying gesture adults perform on children.  These short men, unlike Lopate, suffer the same harsh penalties that women suffer – they are dismissed, pitied, infantilized, and judged based on one feature completely out of the body’s control.

To be tall is to look down on the world and meet its eyes on your own terms. Obviously, this is a man’s perspective. Tell this to the 6’1” girl who is my son’s best friend in college, the one who averages 10 points in her college basketball games and who can’t get a date because, as my son says, “Guys are just intimidated by her.” Tell her that she’s getting to “meet the world’s eyes on her own terms.”

Because I found parts of his essay, already, “dangerously provoking,” which Lopate admits as a possible reaction to the “noblesse oblige” of tall men, I found his “gossip column about my body” paragraph dull-witted and self-indulgent. He picks scabs and jabs Q-tips in his ears and relishes his belly button odor – and he says this in a pseudo-confessional tone like he expects the reader to be mildly embarrassed and horrified at his honesty. I wasn’t. And don’t even get me started on his penis inspection and the Freudian-esque pshyco-babble about the trilogy of cock, suicide and impotence. Spare me.

Maybe men feel this way when they read Naomi Wolf or Jenefer Shute on their female bodies. Maybe they are just as impatient with a middle-aged woman who recounts the “tentative, guilty and frightening” moment she decided she actually liked her body (Tisdale) as I am with Lopate’s confession that his penis “has a personality like a cat’s.” Maybe I need to find a way to be a kinder, gentler reader of Lopate’s essay, take more time to appreciate his deft irony (I really like that he saves his penis until last, and begins “About my penis there is nothing,” when a suicide attempt and an impotence idealization is quick to follow). Obviously, it is not Lopate’s craft, but his presumptuousness, that I struggle with in this essay.


A Reading of Kingsolver’s “High Tide in Tucson”

My kids often had hermit crabs, especially in the summer when we made trips to the beach where we found them for sale in wire cages at tacky beach shops; and after the requisite “please mom’s,” they wrenched slender pinched claws from the wire cage to drop the crabs into take-out boxes like the ones we ate our lo-mien from. Sometimes we purchased a few extra shells, painted neon colors, so the kids could leave them out in the aquarium as promising new homes for their crabs. We could always tell when a crab was about to move because it stayed in its old shell long enough for its body to spill out of it, like it didn’t know how silly it looked with its usually private body parts swelling out of the shell’s narrow opening.

My favorite hermit crab name was “Hairdo,” which my daughter aptly chose for the crab whose shell was a beehive shape in a swirl reminiscent of an old-fashioned bun. One time Hairdo escaped and went missing for weeks in my daughter’s room, but miraculously was found one morning, scooting across my daughter’s rug, pointed in the direction of an open potato chip bag.

I once tried to use a hermit crab as a centering metaphor in an essay, and it didn’t work in the usual ways that too-obvious symbols fail us. The crab that tries on different homes, abandoning one to migrate to another, taking up a new shell like we take on new identities, was too predictable to hold up.

But Barbara Kingsolver makes the metaphor work in High Tide in Tucson. When she struggles – like the sentence: When I was twenty-two, I donned the shell of a tiny yellow Renault and drove with all I owned from Kentucky to Tucson. – she just pushes a bit too hard to force the analogies, like I continuously did in my failed essay.

What makes Kingsolver’s hermit crab metaphors work is her integration of the 1954 research on the way intertidal oysters adapted to their environments; even in the absence of an ocean tide, they carried out their lives in the “same cyclic unison.”  Moving away from family, settling in Tucson, finding a way to make the rhythms of that new place in the desert familiar and home-like – all of these comparisons work to connect Kingsolver’s moving experiences to the hermit crab that stowed away to Tucson in her luggage.

What I love is how she folds her “losses” and “gifts” into a single paragraph later in the essay: a “knife in the stomach” alongside a “column of blue butterflies rising” from a monastery. Grief and joy collapsed. And afterwards she writes about her bold confrontation with the strangers who tried to rob her, insisting she wasn’t brave or lucky at all; that this was “only the way life goes” (269). She blindly does what anyone would do in those moments of fear and grief, joy and beauty: she “fought off the knife,” “mourned” the lost baby and marriage, and “bore witness” to beauty.

Living, Kingsolver tells us in this essay, means doing whatever it takes to survive.

Earlier this month my cousin’s 18-year-old son was killed in a car accident. She lives in Texas, another sort of desert, one I’ve never wanted to visit, and the only access I have to her grief is on Facebook. Her son, a wiry dark haired boy I’d never met, was a senior in high school, only “120 pounds soaking wet,” my aunt told me on the phone last week, and ironically or tragically or miraculously, depending on how you read this truth, had accidentally made a baby with his girlfriend, due in only a few weeks. The couple had been in that hard place of trying to calibrate to the tide of a new life they had somehow stowed away to: the girl living with my cousin and her husband because her family had disowned her, my cousin’s son, James, dropping every class except the two he needed to graduate so that he could find a job repairing computers. When James died on a rainy highway a few weeks ago, he and his girlfriend were living in that necessary moment of “raw, green passion for survival” (272).

Now James’ parents, the cousin I haven’t seen since she was a twelve-year old, stringy-haired skateboarding girl, and James’ brother and father and cousins, his olive-skinned girlfriend with her heavy belly, that boy inside her, must go on living.

Kingsolver says when something extraordinary shows up in your life in the middle of the night, you give it a name and make it the best home you can. And that’s what they will do for James’ infant boy, the baby who showed up unexpected and unwanted, but who will help my cousin cross the “wide gulf” from survival to joy.

Practice: Intellectual Property Challenge


Richmond, VA Skyline in Lights

(Photo credit: Will Fisher)

Richmond, VA is one of the oldest cities in America and is famous for being the capital of the confederacy. Today, Richmond is a thriving, metropolitan city with much to do and see in the day and night. Richmond is home to many colleges and universities, including Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Richmond, and Virginia Union. There are also several community colleges in the area, including J. Sargeant Reynolds and John Tyler Community College, as well as vocational colleges like ECPI College of Technology and ITT Technical Institute.

Arts and culture in Richmond are thriving. The city is home to the VA Historical Society and the VA Museum of Fine Arts, as well as the Science Museum of VA, the Children’s Museum of Richmond, and the VA Center for Architecture. Other interesting historical sights include the Edgar Allen Poe House and Museum, the John Marshall House and Hollywood Cemetery. Monument Avenue is well-known for it’s confederate statues commemorating soldiers such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Performing arts flourish in Richmond.  The Landmark Theater, Carpenter Center, Barksdale Theater and Empire Theater are notable venues for formal performances. For music, the Richmond Folk Festival is a multi-day event that hosts folk, bluegrass and country music every summer.

(Video source: Alex Shtam)

Many smaller theaters and venues throughout the city are home to live music on a daily or weekly basis as well. Finally, the Richmond Mural Project and the RVA Street Art Festival have facilitated the production of murals by nationally and internationally acclaimed artists throughout the city.  According to Shane Pomajambo, owner of the Art Whino Gallery and sponsor of the Richmond Mural Project, the murals that were produced during 2014 “continue to build Richmond’s reputation as a go to destination” that invites “exploration of the city.” In addition, this project has beautified many less than beautiful or simply plain areas in Richmond.

Research Blog Assignment # 8

Durham, Aisha, Brittney C. Cooper, and Susana M. Morris. “The Stage Hip-Hop Feminism Built: A New Directions Essay.” Signs.38.3 (2013): 721-37. JSTOR. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.

Durham, Cooper and Morris provide a brilliant insight into the multi-facet existence of hip-hop feminism in The Stage Hip-Hop Feminism Built: A New Directions Essay by mapping the current terrain of hip-hop feminist studies through identifying challenges and tensions, reviewing current literature/engaging the issues and highlighting emerging areas for further development in the field. They define hip-hop feminism as “a generationally specific articulation of feminist consciousness, epistemology, and politics rooted in the pioneering work of multiple generations of black feminists based in the United States” (722). Specifically, focusing in on questions/issues that sprout from the aesthetic/political prerogatives of hip-hop culture. (722) Another angle these authors provide is describing ‘percussive feminism’ as hip-hop feminism. Percussive feminism is “the striking of one body with or against another with some degree of force, so as to give a shock; impact; a stroke, blow, knock” (724) as well as the creativity that is manifested from placing modes/objects of inquiry together that aren’t traditionally cohesive. (724) The most obvious example at hand…hip-hop and feminism.

The challenges and tensions identified, boil down to the ways “black and brown bodies have been historically configured as excessive”(725).  It describes the excess and pathology that has severely limited the black and brown sexualities, specifically when identifying the representations of women of color as either “ladies and queens or as bitches and whores” (725). Perpetuating these labels, is the over-exploitation, hyper-sexualization, policing of sexuality and bodies of young women of color. One umbrella example given: the instructional ‘make it rain dance’…which projects for these young people how to perform sexuality and imagine desire; not solely for the young women but for the men as well. It activates controlling images and power-laden stereotypes such as the label of ‘video girl’, whom invests in appearance and is doused in this mindset: in order to gain fame-one must shape into the relevancy of a gold digger (729). A following example of exploitation, to women of color in the music industry, discusses the push for the field of the heterosexual African American performer. Placing the spotlight on Nicki Manaj, when she announced to the public of her bi-sexuality, the accumulated back-lash received led to her jumping into a different persona and marketing ‘no homo’ and ‘strictly dickly’. (725)  What hip-hop feminism also aims to create is “more of an elastic way of talking about gender relations”, provide an awareness lens that shows the continual reliance on normative notions and discuss the “compulsory heterosexuality within the music and the culture at large.” (728)

Found within the section In Search Of New Horizons, is the emergence of areas that catalyze progressive development within hip-hop feminism. “Hip-hop happens through the body when they dance, walk down the street, or recite favorite rhymes. ” (727) It takes place in schools, homes, community centers and performance facilites-these girls use self-critiquing “keeping it real” language from the hip-hop culture, to challenge misogyny, engage in social activism and issues such as gender stereotypes, body image and love. (728) With the help from renowned female poets/MC’s, these women assist in amplifying teen girls stories. They assist with imagining (while creating)…how hip-hop can engender community. So as, by providing these girls with skills to revolutionize how we see, and talk about black women in hip-hop.

Lastly, is the introduction of the term of ‘Afrofuturism’ which is the “African-American culture’s appropriation of technology and imagery, which can be understood as epistemology. Both examine the current problems faced by blacks (and people of color more generally) and critiques interpretations of the past and the future. “(733) Examples from the music industry feature: Janelle Monae, Outkast and Erykah Badu. These artists are connected by their commitment to portraying the histories of people of color as well as analyzing the dominant systems of power. They offer futurist solutions on transgressive ethos and provide the vibrancy of the larger framework of Afrofuturism, while simultaneously reframing hip-hop feminism. (733)


-“Hip-hop feminism’s evolving digital presence is not only evidence of the movement’s relevance and strength but also reflects its continued interest in democratizing the creation and dissemination of knowledge as well as promoting open dialogues about issues important to communities of color. It is hip-hop feminism that is uniquely able to move women from the sidelines of the stages we built, and from the cheering section of audiences that our public pedagogies have made space for, to claim an unapologetic place at the center as knowledge makers and culture creators.” (734)

-the blogosphere has become the digital public forum for feminist consciousness-raising, and social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook have morphed into virtual command centers to mobilize coalitions for grassroots activism. Take the We Are the 44% coalition, for instance. (731)

-…..hip-hop feminism’s continued investment in being in but not of the academy has made social media attractive because it provides an opportunity to practice public pedagogy among nonacademic audiences….. (731)









Research Blog Assignment # 7

Peoples, Whitney A. “Under Construction”: Identifying Foundations of Hip-Hop Feminism and Exploring Bridges between Black Second-Wave and Hip-Hop Feminisms.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 8.1 (2008): 19-52. EBSCO Host. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.

“Under Construction”: Identifying Foundations of Hip-Hop Feminism and Exploring Bridges between Black Second-Wave and Hip-Hop Feminisms by Whitney Peoples explores the sociopolitical objectives of hip-hop feminism by understanding the sociopolitical platform of hip-hop feminists. In accordance to Peoples, hip-hop feminism is the reclaiming of young Black women in the U.S. who are trying to create space for themselves between whiteness and the academically sanitized versions of university-based feminism…while confronting the maleness of hip-hop. (Peoples, 26) 

The sociopolitical agenda of  a percentage of hip-hop feminists is to uplift segments of the population which consume the genre: young African-American women and girls. (Peoples, 28)  This portion of hip-hop feminists stresses that uplifting these young women and girls is to be done through self-actualization and “through the dissemination of political education and efforts at institution-building” (Peoples, 28). Another means of this section, is to create another angle of view to the term ‘feminism’. To see this word, this meaning, as a mode of analysis through which to critique the social, political and economic structures that govern their lives-rather than a label of women associated with a particular social movement. (Peoples, 30) And also, provide young black women with the tools necessary to critique negative messages they are receiving from the lyrics and visual expressions of rap music. (Peoples, 30)

The current political agenda of hip-hop feminists is molding a contemporary manifestation of consciousness-raising. (Peoples, 30) Consciousness-raising encourages personal change, political transformation and action to be taken where possible. For this population…political education and communal institutions must be the cohesive factor in forging the socio-political agenda. (Peoples, 31)


-“We need to create a space in which young women can critique these harsh realities and rap music’s glamorization of them”

-“Hip-hop gave me language that made my black womanhood coherent to myself & the world.”

-“African-American women writing between the worlds of hip-hop & feminism & within the points of their convergence recognize that black men and women need forums and other spaces in which to have crucial conversations between and among themselves.”

Research Blog Assignment # 6.

Mowatt, Rasul A., Bryana H. French, and Dominique A. Malbranche. “Black/Female/Body Hypervisibility and Invisibility: A Black Feminist Augmentation of Feminist Leisure Research.”Journal of Leisure Research 45.5 (2013): 644-60. EBSCO Host. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.

From the Journal of Leisure Research, this piece on “Black/Female/Body Hypervisibilty and Invisibility: A Black Feminist Augmentation of Feminist Leisure Research” by Mowatt, French, Malbranche, proposes two concepts for Black feminist analysis of visibility and hypervisbility; with hypervisibilty in body politics, black women are represented in stereotyped and commodified ways through-out leisure spaces and scholarship. (Mowatt, French, Malbranche, 645) The main focus of this assignment is centered around “Hypervisibility-The Body Politics of Black Women”. It provides the reader with explanations of stereotypical images that constrict Black womanhood alongside psychosocial implications of these stereotypical representations.

Beginning the explanation of  the section: “Context of Black Women’s Bodies” with reference to Sara Baartman, a South African woman who lived in the 1800’s, who was placed on display throughout London and Paris to expose the black female body, this became the pinpoint of historical context for Black Women’s bodies as “hypersexualized spectacles for consumption”. (Mowatt, French, Malbranche, 650) With reference to this historical representation, the authors then go onto highlight the three main stereotypes of black women in literature.

The first stereotype is Jezebel.  The hypersexualized, manipulative, animalistic, promiscuous black woman, who cannot be controlled. This representation includes light skin, long hair, shapely body who’s sexuality revolves to attain attention, love and material goods. (Mowatt, French, Malbranche, 650) This stereotype is used to “justify rape and sexual exploitation” and that she is always looking for, wanting and ready for sex. This also introduces the term (Commercialized Sexual Exploitation/CSE)…a pervasive form of sexual violence and exploitation for the black woman experience. (Mowatt, French, Malbranche, 650) CSE, promotes the racial-sexualization and stereotyping of black women, through the mainstream media as over-sexed and available for prostitution.

The second stereotype is The Mammy. Depicted as dark-skinned, large framed, asexual Black woman as a domestic servant for white slave owners/employers of the post-emancipation era. (Mowatt, French, Malbranche, 650) She is barely recognized as a woman, seen as non-threatening and always places the needs of others first before herself. This section also brings to the discussion of the body image self-identification of black women versus white women. That black women, with higher BMI are shown to have lower body satisfaction but greater satisfaction with particular body parts. (Mowatt, French, Malbranche, 651)

The third stereotype is The Angry Black Woman/ Sapphire. Depicted as unintelligent, aggressive, domineering, emasculating, behaving in loud and offensive ways. (Mowatt, French, Malbranche, 652) When this stereotype of a black woman voices their opinion about issues, these women are seen as trouble makers.

The projections and explanations of these three stereotypes is seen on a mass-scale of societal internalization for black women. Leading to lower levels of self-esteem and negative validation of their image.  Alongside, contributing to many anxiety-filled reactions towards the self. (Mowatt, French, Malbranche, 652)