Corpses in Shakespeare’s plays, 17th-century libertinism, female Brazilian footballers, bodybuilding, tattoos and taboos all came under scrutiny this week at a University of Chester conference on body image.
The event was the brainchild of Emma Rees, senior lecturer in English at Chester, and arose out of research for her book, The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, due to be published this autumn.
She had become fascinated, she explained, by the way that the only word referring to the whole female genital area was also the most insulting in the English language. She had also explored the theme of “autonomous organs”, as in the cult 1977 US film Chatterbox!, in which a woman’s talking and singing vagina goes on tour and its poor “owner” has to follow unwillingly behind.
That led Dr Rees to a more general question that she believed all women have to deal with: “Am I my body or do I have a body?”
When she decided to put together a conference exploring such themes, she found she had touched a nerve, and received a large number of submissions from which she was able to select some 90 of the best papers.
Presenters’ countries of origin range from Austria to Australia, Nigeria to the Netherlands and Portugal to the Philippines. She was keen to include “real people as well as academics”, so performers, sex workers and transgender activists were also enlisted to take part.
“There are two kinds of event that I love going to,” Dr Rees explained, “academic conferences and music festivals, so I thought I’d combine the two.”
She hoped she had created “an immersive experience for delegates”.
Along with a marketplace for gifts and souvenirs, the conference, held from 26 to 28 March and titled Talking Bodies: Identity, Sexuality, Representation, featured a keynote paper by US activist Naomi Wolf, “a feminist pub quiz with an international, human rights slant” and even a “pussy power” workshop.
Artist Helen Knowles described work designed to challenge “the separation between women as mothers and women as sexual entities”, which draws on the “vast library of home birth films” women have put on YouTube - films that have sometimes been censored as “shocking and disgusting”.
Louisa Yates, visiting lecturer in English at Chester - and herself almost 6ft 2ins - explored how “‘tall’ women are always represented as being different to ‘all’ women”, on the basis of “a set of assumptions which maintain that men are taller, stronger, bigger, and women who mess with that are a problem to be fixed”.
Other presentations looked at “the girlfriend gaze”, the power of beauty in traditional fairy tales and the anxieties stirred up by “leaky” bodies in a society “obsessed with controlled…bodies that are efficient and effective”.
Meanwhile, Marjolein Van Bavel, an MA student in gender studies at University College London, put forward research on women who had posed nude for Dutch Playboy and Penthouse in the 1980s, examining in what sense, if at all, they had found the experience “empowering”.