Becoming Women started as a 500-page award-winning PhD thesis and is now one of the most comprehensive qualitative research studies to date on body image and the embodied self, with close to 90 interviews of “women’s body histories.” The research from this work has already reached the public through the many talks Carla Rice has given in her quest to transform image culture and ease women’s body concerns. She’s made over 100 TV and media appearances and edited a groundbreaking feminist reader last year with important essays from influential writers like Bell Hooks, Jessica Valenti, and Gloria Steinem.
How did you become involved in your area of research?
As a representative of the first generation of women who came of age in image culture and being faced with the barrage of images of the idealized body, I have experienced and witnessed many of the deep-rooted issues around embodiment and image faced by diverse Canadian women.
When I started working in women’s mental health and eating disorder counselling programs in the late 1980s, I saw that the diversity of women struggling with body image issues was not necessarily being reflected in the research, media stories, or in government policies and programs addressing these concerns. The typical profile of someone with body image issues was that of young, white, middle class, able-bodied, and heterosexual women. However, when I did talks about eating distress, weight problems, or other non-weight related body image concerns, I saw that a large cross-section of women attending these presentations occupied much more diverse social locations: they had diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, were with and without disabilities and physical differences, were both queer and straight, and were from various social classes. This prompted me to explore ordinary Canadian women’s experiences of their bodies from their earliest memories into adulthood to uncover important messages they received from popular culture, families, friends, school textbooks, and the medical system in order to develop an intersectional understanding of their diverse body image concerns, and track the effects of image culture on their sense of bodily self.
What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?
These problems are not superficial; they are not simply concerns about vanity. Rather, they reach down deep into our bodies, affecting our sensations, perceptions, movements, feelings, and desires, touching our core sense of identity and self. The issues that I’m researching deeply affect women’s self-concept and social esteem, and our ability to experience pleasure in our lives. Bodies are pivotal sites of social status in image culture.
What inspired you to write this book?
When I started this study, I wanted to understand ordinary Canadian women in their diversity beyond what was being represented as the norm: white, middle/upper-class, straight, and able-bodied. Somewhat ironically, even the academic literature that was critiquing the exclusion of diverse representations of women in the media was participating in this same sort of marginalization by not representing these women’s experiences in most of the research then being conducted. That was of concern to me because there was a double exclusion going on: these women were being excluded from popular discussion of the effects of being marginalized from the beauty myth and their experiences were erased within the academic literature itself.
How long did it take you to write your latest book?
It started out back in 2003 as a 500-page thesis where I analyzed women’s diverse narratives about coming of age in image culture. I put the book on hold until 2008, after which it took about 4 years to complete. The book itself has since come to bear little resemblance to the thesis: it is an original piece of work where I am interested in the ways that diverse women have navigated a barrage of looks and images and formed a sense of bodily self through and against the images handed to them by our culture.
What are some of the findings in the book?
The purpose of qualitative research is not to find definitive answers to a question or problem, but rather to gain a deeper understanding of a phenomenon through peeling back the layers of meanings embedded in experiences. One important insight from the book is how women growing up in our globalizing, image-oriented, post-feminist, and consumerist world navigate the profoundly contradictory messages they have received from image culture and from feminism, thus creating in many of us what I call a “split consciousness.” On the one hand, beauty culture says our value or worth as women is based on how we look, and on the other, feminism says that we are much more than our looks. We are left grappling with wanting to be admired and desired for our physical appearance and at the same time wanting to be valued for who we are, for more than just how we look.
Another finding is that consumer capitalism is not going to solve the problem of the beauty myth (the idea that your value is determined by how you look, that female power comes from beauty) for women. As I talk about at length in the book, my work on the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty gave me a first-hand knowledge on how engaging companies like Dove to expand images of beauty can only go so far because corporations won’t push consumers to the point of making them uncomfortable—this will adversely affect sales. Examples of the limits of working within consumer capitalism can be seen in the Real Beauty campaign: even though they cast women who were larger, they didn’t cast those who had visible cellulite, body hair, visible physical differences, were missing limbs, had asymmetrical bodies, or used wheelchairs. And although most us have body hair, this reality was not depicted. It is for this reason that Dove’s notion of a “real women” won’t help many young and adult women in dealing with image issues. And girls are still left with the impression that cellulite, stretch marks, body hair and other physical changes typically associated with puberty are frightening and scary.
Rather than finding solutions to the problem of the beauty myth through consumer capitalism, I’ve become much more interested in women’s image-making in social media and in activist and artistic circles. A great example of this is the collage featured on my book cover created by Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu. Mutu combines cutout images from contemporary fashion magazines, medical diagrams, pornographic texts, colonial accounts, and men’s magazines to create distorted yet sophisticated and arresting figures of ugliness/beauty. She bases this on the idea that “Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.” Her work thus crystalizes a key thread running throughout my book: that girls coming of age in a globalizing beauty culture must contend not only with pressures to aspire to idealized bodies but also to escape abject ones, meaning those body parts and processes rejected by culture. Ultimately, sitting with these diverse women’s stories has taught me that the solution is not so much to throw out the concept of beauty entirely (what would we lose without some concept of beauty and sensory pleasure in our lives?) but instead to re-conceive what beauty is. Rather than doing away with the concept of beauty, how can we look at beauty in a way that is less harmful, perhaps more about sensuality? Beauty could be reconceived as a kind of sensory pleasure and exquisite attunement to our senses and the world around us experienced in the moment, generating a more first-person, embodied notion of beauty.
What do you find most interesting about your area of research?
That these issues are felt so intensely and experienced so personally indicates to me that they touch the core of people’s sense of self in the world. In my research, I get to traverse the broader political, social, and cultural landscapes of the past and present and at the same time, I get to glimpse into people’s inner psychological worlds. Our identities and our sense of our selves have been remade in image culture, and this has a special significance for women because we are thought of as our bodies more so than men. Over the past twenty years, many diversely-embodied women, including racialized women, non-heterosexuals, fat and very thin women and those with disabilities and physical differences have talked with me about the single story that has been told up to now about women’s image concerns, how this story is about white, middle class, straight, non-disabled, and average-sized women. This was not their story. They wanted instead to talk about images of beauty and stereotypes of difference circulating in image culture. For example, Black women wanted to talk about the ways that natural hair is often read by the dominant culture as unclean, messy, and uncivilized, and straightened hair as respectable; how they had to contend with those messages at the same time as contending with other messages about skin colour, ethnic looks, and body size.
What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?
What was very surprising to me was how mistreatment in medical systems of women with disabilities and bodily differences, and experiences of childhood sexual abuse had similar effects on women’s sense of oneness with their bodies. Also, women reacted to these traumas, whether medical or sexual, similarly by withdrawing from the site of violations: their bodies. It was also interesting to me that many women could recall a period in early childhood where they experienced a sense of capacity, sensory pleasure, and spontaneity in their bodies, regardless of disability or difference.
Do you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of your book?
For my research I have travelled to Vienna where I explored messages about fat that women received from physical education classes and popular culture when they were children. I also travelled to Manchester where I talked about “Qualifying as a Woman” as a prerequisite for making that identity claim; people surrounding each woman having to say “yes you are a woman” in order for her to feel like and become one. I have presented on this research in England and Argentina, and I will be going to Japan and Italy this summer to talk more about this work. For the Dove Real Beauty Campaign I went to NYC and England to bring this research and my own clinical experiences to folks who were developing the campaign and the scope and activities of Dove Self Esteem fund.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
It is enormously difficult to draw from and weave together so many complex, unique stories into a broader cultural story without violating participants’ individual or social differences. Also, I had to make meaning of more than 7000 pages of raw interview material and locate those experiences within broader cultural contexts while still respecting individual voices and narratives.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Feminism has taught us that we need to see the idea of a woman not as one thing, but to understand that somebodies’ gender and sex will be seen, understood, and expressed differently depending on one’s race, class, and abilities. Race, disability and body size, in other words, overlap with and clarify one’s gender and sex. Though it is enormously complicated to do such an intersectional analysis, feminism teaches us that we have to look at more than a woman’s gender or sex in order to understand her situation and experience. As a result of writing this book, I have developed a more nuanced perspective of what it means to be, and to become, a woman in image culture and how diverse and improvisational the pathways are depending on a multiplicity of intersecting differences and influences.
What are your current/future projects?
Right now I hold the position of Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Care, Gender and Relationships at the University of Guelph where I’m working on changing the representational field. I’m interested in how we can create new meanings of differences by creating new imagery. So what do I mean by this? In our society, we believe that fat is ugly, a sign of laziness and self-indulgence, and we equate it with unfitness. But are all fat people lazy and unfit? Obviously not. So how can we create new meanings and tell different stories about fat bodies? How do we generate and circulate compelling images and narratives that show the vitality and dynamism of fatness or disability, for example? So, as part of my CRC I’ve started Project Re•Vision, which invites marginalized communities to talk back to such stereotypes through arts-based interventions. The media lab I established, REDLAB, brings together artists, decision makers, and members of marginalized communities, and gives these diverse groups the tools and training to make films that challenge taken-for-granted, harmful attitudes embedded in dominant representations. With this research, I am moving away from documenting problems and towards creating media about the possibilities of differences; here I’m interested in broadening and transforming representations.
What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?
I am about to start a book by the Aboriginal author Joseph Boyden, The Orenda (2013), a fictional account of Aboriginal experiences during the period of first contact, which just won the CBC Canada Reads competition. I’ve also been reading books about art, how it affects people, and how it can be used for social change. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (2008) by the Australian feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz is a beautiful book that examines the potential of art to address human suffering, and how philosophy, science, and art are three endeavors we humans engage in as a way making meaning of the world, and of dealing with chaos and our own certain demise.
What is your favourite book?
I love everything Jane Austen. In recent years, I have also fallen in love with feminist dystopic science fiction, which offers readers cautionary tales about the ethics of technologies, about what could happen if the most glaring problems and worst excesses in our society are not curbed or solved, and what might happen if we don’t wake up and attend to injustices occurring around us. Some examples of this type of fiction are Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and After the Flood, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents.
If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?
I would be a therapist or a film maker. I worked as a therapist prior to working as an academic; I very much enjoyed and was good at it. Judging by my ability to find a story in over 7000 pages of raw interview transcripts for Becoming Women, I also suspect I would be a good film editor! I’m fascinated with storytelling through images and with how image, words, voice, and other sounds work together to bring audiences inside an experience in a new way, in a way that neither words nor images alone can accomplish.