Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Christina Aguilera, Etta James, and a Lesson in Uncontrollable Bodies

February 2nd, 2012 by Heather Dillaway

It was Etta, Christina, Los Angeles. Was that menstrual blood or a melting spray-on tan running down Christina Aguilera’s legs during her performance at Etta James’ memorial service last Saturday? The verdict is still out. Regardless, word on the internet is that Aguilera’s bodily event, and not her heartfelt performance of James’ hit song At Last, stole the show.

 

When will we realize that bodies are sometimes uncontrollable? Think about all the ways our bodies demonstrate this, and often in public. Our noses run, our throats need clearing, we sweat when we’re nervous, burp after we eat, pass gas without meaning to, leak milk when we breastfeed, throw up when we have the flu, lose our balance, bump into walls, break out in acne, and yes, evil of all evils, maybe even menstruate.

Yet cultural norms suggest that we can, or should, control our bodies in all moments and that we can have the bodies we desire if we work hard enough. But when we really think about it, who can believe this is true?

Seriously, bodies are uncontrollable. They are leaky. They react to the things we do to them and inevitably carry on natural, physiological processes – like digestion and menstruation — even when we want to pretend that they don’t.

And we can be vicious in our response when real life drives this lesson home. Visit YouTube, celebrity news columns and even mainstream news sites and you can read about Aguilera’s outstanding performance at James’ memorial service, only to find out about the “disgrace” she caused while singing. The incident is being called Aguilera’s most recent “mishap”, a “wardrobe malfunction,” or a “disgusting accident,” depending on which article you’re reading.

I find it interesting that almost all commenters on this story imply that Aguilera should have been able to control her body. Says who?  What makes Aguilera so different than any of the rest of us who have been unable to control our bodies in public at times? Despite what cultural norms tell us, bodies are sometimes uncontrollable. The very event – Etta James’ memorial service – reminds us that bodies are at times in control of themselves, even telling us when life is done. The idea that we can completely control natural processes is ridiculous.  We can try to control our bodies as much as we want, but sometimes they just do what they want, when they want.

I also find it fascinating that Aguilera’s publicists (and plenty of commenters on this story) are so intent on discounting the idea that Aguilera might have started her period. To them, a dripping spray tan is the “better” story. Really? So, a natural process that almost all women experience for a good portion of their lives is more “embarrassing” and “gross” than spraying oneself with a fake tan?

Commenters on this story seem appeased by the possibility that Aguilera was simply trying to beautify (tan) herself, indicating to me that the natural (menstruation) has now become unnatural and the unnatural (fake tans) is the new natural. It is now more acceptable (“natural”) to fake a culturally condoned physical appearance than to menstruate? This seems a bit backwards. Why is evidence of a fake tan better than evidence of menstruation? Why has the unnatural become natural and more acceptable here?

Finally, the shaming of the individual (here, Aguilera) is so blatantly obvious that I am reminded of how distanced most of us are from our own bodies but how, simultaneously, we are so ready to gaze on others’ bodies to critique them for being just that, bodies!

Women and their bodies are shamed in very specific ways. Plenty of feminist researchers have written about menstrual shaming and menstrual taboos. Others have written about the power of Western beauty norms. We know that women are told they are dirty, evil, ugly, untrustworthy, irrational, etc., when they are menstruating, and must hide any evidence of menstruation. At the same time, we know that women are held to unattainable beauty standards and are critiqued for not meeting these standards. Aguilera was doomed to be derided for this bodily event. Regardless of what it was running down her legs, she is at fault for not being able to control her body. Which brings me back to my original point and question:

When will we realize that bodies are uncontrollable sometimes?

Aguilera is no different from the rest of us who have experienced similar bodily incidents in public. To shame her for either the evidence of her menstruation or the evidence of her attempt to beautify herself is to both deny and illuminate the power of cultural norms as well as the power of our bodies to fight those norms.  As always, our bodies are cultural texts in and of themselves. Our reactions to our own bodies and others’ bodies are telling of the norms we live by, and the norms that, really, we cannot live up to at the end of the day.

I wonder what Etta James would have thought about all of this…

 

  

2 Responses to “Christina Aguilera, Etta James, and a Lesson in Uncontrollable Bodies”

  1. Chris Bobel says:

    I so appreciate your take on this Heather. You are right…it doesn’t matter WHAT trickled down her leg. What matters is our persistent cultural denial that we ALL inhabit messy, unpredictable bodies and that the standards of control vary depending on a host of factors, including especially gender, race, class and age. The NORMS WE LIVE BY, as you put it, are the real story here.

    • Heather D says:

      Thanks for reading, Chris! Yeah, it would be fun to make a list of all of the bodily incidents we’ve had that defy cultural norms, wouldn’t it? The list would go on and on for each and every one of us! Menstruation alone would give us all examples to write down, but if we broadened it to ANY bodily incident we’ve had in public, wow….

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