In this talk, I’ve touched on the history of the body in folklore scholarship, the body in folk narrative, the body in dance and body art, and the body in the adjacent fields of the academic classroom, the alt-ac experience, and sex education. The representations of bodies in folk narrative link certain bodily configurations with moral codes, just as the constructions of teenage bodies in public school sex education and pedagogical discourse equate bodies with value and values. The luxury of those who can ignore bodies – whether in historical folklore scholarship or on university campuses – is a trend we need to continue to interrogate.
Larger questions emerge too, which unfortunately we cannot tackle in this conversation. These include: which bodies are valued, and what happens to the ones that aren’t valued? How do representations of bodies impact worldviews about bodies, and the policies, both institutional and informal, that are enacted? And finally, who controls the right to make decisions about bodies, both their own and those of others?
As I was finishing writing this portion of my talk, the state in which I reside, Indiana, just passed one of the most restrictive abortion bills in the country, reclassifying fetal remains as corpses that need to be buried or cremated. This part also applies to miscarriages. Oh, and it’s now illegal to abort in the case of fetal abnormalities that would result in death anytime after three months after being born. The folk response has been a great example of internet folklore, though, with the #AskDrPence hashtag on Twitter emerging, as well as the Periods for Pence Facebook page. Where institutional power grates on bodies, folklore will respond in creative ways, so that, at least, is something positive to end on.
One of my strategies in the face of all this is to be aware of how we’re judged for our passions and our bodies…and then to try to subvert those associations. The good news is that since we learn these associations, we can unlearn them too. I tend to not shut up about my passions, but then, I also inhabit a white, cisgender, typically-abled body, so that comes with some privilege.
As an example, one of the required courses for my graduate degree assigned writings by a bunch of long-dead white dudes. The course was not specifically about long-dead white dudes. Every time I brought up women’s issues, sexuality, gender roles, or feminist or queer theory, I felt like a crazy feminist for opening my mouth in class. So I ran with it, doing my final paper on the influence of feminist theory on folkloristics. Then I published it.
To return to my opening personal narrative about Dundes telling me not to be out as a dancer…well…I’m still out as a dancer. Do I show up to my college courses in a crop top and sweaty from practice? No. But I like to think that I’m building a world where if I did, it wouldn’t matter, I’d still be seen as an intellectual. It’s the same with my sex education career. I didn’t decide to stop teaching taboo topics when I realized how precarious my position as an adjunct was. Yes, I pass along mind-blowing new research on human sexuality to my college students sometimes, because I know, sadly, they might not encounter it elsewhere. I remind them that there’s a syphilis outbreak in Indianapolis, in between other points in my lesson plan on syphilis as the motivation for cosmetic surgery in the 1800s when we talk about stigma and embodied deviance.
In short, I try to navigate the realms of professional and personal boundaries as deftly as possible, while acknowledging that constraints of appropriateness place more of a burden on the bodies of those who are already marginalized.
So thank you for joining me on this journey through folklore scholarship and related realms, historical and contemporary, theoretical and practical, narrative and embodied, academic and activist. I hope that in interrogating the many meanings of the body and embodiment, we further the pursuit of knowledge as well as justice. I hope that we find ways to intertwine the goals of higher education with those of activism, so that all bodies can be fed, clothed, educated, and valued. And I hope that we attend to our own bodies and those around us, practicing radical self-care and acceptance. Con drop is real. Get those self-care strategies lined up now.
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