Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Over the past several years, small, student-run, pseudo-underground blogs have popped up on campuses like our own featuring the naked or semi-naked bodies of students. The showcased bodies are self-submitted, self-captioned, and anonymized via the omission of the student’s face. These blogs have functioned as a way for students to celebrate their own and their peers’ bodies in a manner most often inaccessible in academic communities. The beginning of the semester saw the debut of our very own body positive, user-submitted blog, Swattie Bodies. The blog has published a number of submissions and received a fair amount of on-campus attention, from a write up in the print edition of the Phoenix to rumblings over meals at Sharples.
Blogs like these have typically served to provide us with a reassuring and rebellious look at what kinds of bodies are typically pictured and what kind of expectations those images create. They act as a reminder that these unvetted, unedited bodies within our community and the images that contain them are still beautiful, sexual, capable, and worthy of celebration. This is a platform that looks to cast our attention on real bodies over media bodies, on our bodies over their bodies.
To my mind, Swattie Bodies is especially interesting in terms of its potential to subvert a campus culture tinged with a certain type of bodily dissociation. Ours is a community which categorically privileges mind over body – and often rightly; this is an academic institution after all. However, we have a tendency to view body work and bodily-grounded pursuits as being fairly indulgent. Time spent at the gym, in routines of self-care, or on exploring one’s sexual identity is positioned as extraneous and hedonistic rather than as a worthwhile aspect of growth or self-knowledge.
On campus, we have very few radically body positive events at our disposal. Painting in the broadest possible strokes, you could argue that the Dash for Cash, Genderfuck, and Crunkfest all exist – or existed in the first case – in part to advance a specific and highly public ownership of body-based experience. In reality though, these traditions have often existed in frustratingly proscriptive ways: accessible and comfortable only to certain segments of the population, focused on shock value over commentary, and most often involving large quantities of alcohol. These events have no doubt been meaningful to those who have comfortably participated, but they have been limited and limiting in terms of just what particpation might look like and, in each instance, what kind of message a body is meant to send.
Swattie Bodies, at least in theory, holds a certain radical promise, an answer to some of the aforementioned limitations. The site comes with extremely sparse guidelines as to how the bodies should be read. Simply, it bills itself as “a safe and friendly place for Swatties of all shapes and sizes to celebrate their bodies.” This leaves the space for each body to be read on its own terms and not necessarily through the specific lenses proffered by the previously mentioned events. The bodies are not necessarily athletic or humorous or bacchanalian or sexual or queered (or not).
Aside from the brief captions provided by submitters, the bodies here are open to interpretation, almost aggressively so. We can presume certain intentions behind the submissions, among them body reclamation, social statement, sexual exhibitionism, an act of self-validation, or a query for community-based acceptance. In some cases, the captions point us toward the pictured person’s motivation. By and large though, the very lack of instruction on how to read the text of these bodies serves to quietly force our attention back to our own search for meaning, our own desire for a specific reading.
One of the major criticisms of Swattie Bodies centers around the argument that the site exists as primarily sexual or pornographic material. While a sexual component is clearly on the page in the positioning of certain bodies, judging by the tone of the conversations following certain “asks” of the site creator and fellow readers, it would be reductive to suggest that the site itself or the bodies themselves exist as purely sexual stimuli. Similarly, speaking about the site strictly in terms of pornography denies an agency and intentionality to both the site creator and the submitters.
I truly believe there is a revolutionary opportunity intrinsic to this site. There is an insistent radicalism in putting forward one’s body as a valid and respectable form of self-representation, especially in a community framework that so often denies the importance or legitimacy of physical expression. There is a tone of quite literally working to reincorporate (that is to integrate into the corporeal experience) the Student Body with its myriad of student bodies, and that is something I find refreshing, radical, and hopeful.
However, the radical potential of this site is currently very much limited in terms of what kind of bodies are being represented. The site is overwhelmingly white and thin. While the site acts in theory as a comfortable and safe space for any body, any gender, any size, any color, the reality played out has been frustratingly in keeping with more typical depictions of bodies. In this specific context, anonymity is likely and understandably extremely important to most contributors. On a campus so widely homogenous in terms of racial identity and body type, the majority body wins out in term of the most easily anonymous “default” body.
Here, our privilege is visibly coded onto our bodies themselves. The whiteness and thinness of our population dictates that thin and white is the safest body for this forum, not only in terms of broader social/aesthetic acceptance, but in terms of preserving a certain sense of semi-privacy. We can posit haphazard guesses as to which thin, white, female body belongs to which thin, white, female peer, but, short of real life verification we cannot know with any degree of certainty whether we have assumed correctly. In discussions of similar blog platforms, I’ve heard it suggested that anonymity might be re-established by people of color submitting black and white photos, thus effectively ambiguating their body to be plausibly read as “default” (read: white). While I am hesitant to largely censure a strategy that makes expression like this comfortable for more students and for more bodies, I think it is important to point out the bodies are then made to read as further othered. The reduction of the body of color to a literal white/black spectrum forces the question of unintentionally but effectively further emphasizing and identifing those bodies as coded as obviously outside of the default. As non-white. As non-thin.
It is frustrating that this platform – even within its clear and virtuous aim to diversify and localize the kinds of body images to which we have access – itself reinforces a familiar bodily norm. I’ll admit I’m not really sure how best to resolve this issue. The blog is still young; perhaps with more submissions over more time, a certain level of comfort will be established and a degree of anonymity might grow out of the sheer number of images. Perhaps not.
For now, I am grateful to the blog creator for helping to facilitate a discourse on campus about body politics, body policing, and body acceptance, and both grateful to and inspired by those people who have sent in their pictures. While the structures that this system highlights remain flawed and frustrating, the act of placing your naked body on display in this manner is brave and it is meaningful and it is important. Thank you for highlighting, questioning, and then – to a degree – effectively disrupting our notions of normalized corporeality on campus.
Chloe Browne is not affiliated with, and does not take any credit for Swattie Bodies.