Monday, 10 September 2012

GUEST POST: On Making and Publishing The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair by Karín Lesnik-Oberstein

This is the first post in a series, so here's a little intro from me...

Working on, and reading about, female werewolves as much as I do, you become used to dealing on a daily basis with subject matter that most people find a little odd. Hyper-sexual creatures, brutal violence, animal transformation and the supernatural/occult all seem quite normal to me. Even conversations about anthropophagy and cannibalism are fairly routine for me, though these subjects tend to raise more eyebrows when I start talking about them at parties, and the subject of maternal cannibalism (the central theme of perhaps the most controversial of the stories in Wolf-Girls, an anthology I recently edited) is still something of a taboo.

However, there is one aspect of the female werewolf that is far less openly discussed. Female werewolves are hairy. They have body hair and they don't, on the whole, seek to remove it (apart from in Mattel's Monster High series, but that's another story...) And yet, we don't talk about this. This facet of the female werewolf is discreetly side-stepped or euphemized in (most, though not all) fiction. The silence, distaste and disgust surrounding female werewolves' body hair is not surprising, given that there is a silence, distaste and disgust surrounding all female body hair. It is something to be removed, reviled and certainly not spoken of in polite company. The hairy girl is, at best, an oddity, at worst, an aberration.

So, given my predilection for talking about subjects that are normally surrounded by silence, distaste and disgust, it gives me great pleasure to host guest posts from four female writers on the subject of female body hair. For the first post in the series, I welcome Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, editor of the only academic collection on female body hair, The Last Taboo.

Karín Lesnik-Oberstein is Professor of Critical Theory and Director of the ‘Graduate Centre for International Research in Childhood: Literature, Culture, Media (CIRCL)’ in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading, in Reading, UK. Karín’s research interest is in transdisciplinary critical theory, and she has published monographs on Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child (1994) and On Having an Own Child: Reproductive Technologies and the Cultural Construction of Childhood (2008), as well as several edited volumes on critical theory and identity, focussing on gender primarily in The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair (2007, republished in paperback 2011).

I thought of my (edited) book The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair in the early 1990s, very early on in my academic career, both because of my personal experiences with body hair and through discussing this as an issue with one of the very first students I taught (an American exchange student), in my first academic post as a Junior Research Fellow. I was discussing a personal decision I made in my early twenties no longer to remove my body hair with this student, and she told me in turn that she, like me, also had very dark and long body hair growth, according to her because of her Albanian ancestry. This student also told me she was training to be a contemporary ballet dancer (and, in fact, she became a very successful dancer), and that although contemporary ballet prided itself on breaking all kinds of taboos, for instance having dances danced in the nude, she was required to remove all the hair from her body. That was not up for question!

It was during this discussion that I decided to write a book on this whole topic, especially when I then discovered during subsequent research that nobody had done so already. There were a very few articles on the topic, psychological in orientation, examining ideas of femininity, gender and the body, but I discovered even feminist writers and academics had very little to say about why women remove their body hair; primarily, they discuss women’s body shape and weight. They either did (and do) not mention body hair at all, or, if they did, they only briefly advocated not practicing hair removal in order to return to a ‘natural’ body, or they celebrated hair removal as part of an idea of an enjoyment of beautification. In my book I did not want either to advocate hair-removal or to defend it, but try to understand more why it was done: what it meant.

This is also why I ended up not writing the whole book myself, but having different chapters written by different experts, although they all follow the theoretical framework I worked out in relation to body hair in my own introductory chapter, which is to see body hair and the body more widely (any kind of body, not just ‘female’ or ‘human’) as culturally constructed, not as ‘biologically’ determined. In terms of this approach, I was following (as I continue to do in all my work) my interest in critical and cultural theory, inspired by specific interpretations of the implications of psychoanalysis based on the work of, for instance, Jacqueline Rose, Shoshana Felman and Judith Butler. Having a range of different expertise also allows the book to illuminate the meanings of hair-removal across a range of fields and practices: literature, film, art, psychology, advertising, anthropology, and so on.

In the end it took me twenty years to get the book published. I wrote to over forty publishers during those years, but most of them either said the subject was too trivial to write about at such length and in an academic book, or they said that society was no longer interested in what they called ‘extreme feminism’. Interestingly, these responses in and of themselves completely supported the argument of the book and were predictable from what my contributors and I examine in the book, which is that body hair is an instance of how issues can be defined as socially, culturally or historically too silly and trivial to be discussed, on the one hand, whilst on the other they are simultaneously seen as too dangerous, mad and monstrous to be considered, and we argue throughout the book that this is in fact how social and cultural power acts itself out. This can be compared, for instance, to what literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar classically called the ‘madwoman in the attic’ in terms of the marginalisation and vilification of women as writers in nineteenth-century English literature and culture.

It was remarkable to see the kinds of comments publishers (from the UK and USA, as this is where I contacted academic publishers) made, even in the case of initially enthusiastic and supportive commissioning editors: one editor from a self-defined ‘radical’ academic press told me her sales team would not accept the book as they saw it as ‘too feminist’ to be able to sell. On the other hand, self-defined feminist presses such as Virago and The Women’s Press had no interest in the book at all and rejected it out of hand. Another publisher who initially did want to publish the book finally rejected it when a review-reader said they thought it should primarily be about men and body hair, not women (although, in fact, the book argues these are not separate issues). In another case, a publisher wanted me to change the title because they said that The Last Taboo ‘made it sound like it was about sex’; apparently they thought body hair had nothing to do with sexuality! Yet another publisher told me the book should not be theoretical, as there was nothing important theoretically about women and body hair, but that it should be written as a ‘sociological’ study.

My contributors and I were thrilled when the book was finally published by Manchester University Press in 2007. I worked on this book longer than on any other in my academic career, and making it not only was part of my own stubborn belief that this issue mattered, whatever many of the other publishers thought, but also confirmed to me that much of academia (and academic publishing), no matter how much it claims to be about original thinking, is often just as much in thrall to ideas of the acceptable and the valuing of ‘fashion’.

For more information about The Last Taboo, visit the Manchester University Press website, or Amazon.

The Body Hair blog series continues:

Damned if you do and damned if you don't, by Rosie Garland

On Body Hair, by LJ Maher

Female Werewolves, Fur and Body Hair, by Carys Crossen

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