Just a month ago, in March, an exposé on the cheeky (sorry) period-underwear brand Thinx (by Hilary George-Parkin for Racked) sent a certain group of the feminist mainstream — young, cool, online, tired of period stigma — into something of a tailspin. Though their CEO and founder — Miki Agrawal — stepped down, stories of Thinx’s misdoings leaked (sorry again) through the media and spread across the feminist blogosphere.
This bubble continued to pop: the same month, indie-vintage store Modcloth, known for embracing plus-sized and “real-cast” models, was bought by Jet, a subsidiary of Wal*Mart. Those models? Bad for business and reportedly not “aspirational,” according to new-CEO Mark Kaniss, and the plus-size section was dropped.
Nasty Gal, an “e-commerce darling” founded by noted #Girlboss Sophia Amoroso, who wrote a book of the same name and has a show with Netflix slated for 2018, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to restructure. Not even Beyoncé is safe. Her sportswear line with Topshop was criticized for employing garment workers in Romania for less than the (already egregious) minimum wage in China.
Failings of these, and other, “feminist”-branded companies have included aggressive, competitive working environments; unequal pay for equal work, inadequate maternity leave, hostility to salary negotiations, unfair labor practices at home and abroad, and other excoriable practices.
Consumer feminism seems to be failing us — and is itself failing.
In Anne Elizabeth Moore’s first essay in Body Horror: Capitalism, Fear, Misogyny, Jokes, she describes her time in Cambodia interviewing garment workers at the heart of a revolt in “Massacre on Veng Sreng Street.” She writes:
Corruption hits some harder than others. It’s a particular burden on women trying to survive on garment-industry wages—which most working women in the country are. Besides garment work, there’s not much an uneducated woman can do in a country with entrenched gender roles besides sex work, which (with Khmer customers) pays a little less than teachers’ salaries before the bribes, or food vending, which pays about the same. A job at a grocery store or on the cleaning crew of a university pays about $60 per month. If women can afford higher education, there’s teaching—high school teachers can make twice as much as elementary school teachers—but Nike’s already demonstrated how, with limited funds, educational opportunities for girls often suffer.
An irony Moore approaches is that, at least in Cambodia, work in the garment factories is one of the best opportunities available to women. And yet still — the same problems plague us on multiple scales. In “Model Behavior,” Moore again describes talking to some young garment workers, three women, and one man. When she asks the women if they’d like to be managers, they laugh: they’d like to, but there’s not time — to study, to save up enough when the majority of their earnings are going back to support the families that sent them into factory work, to even learn that is something they have to do when many if not most of them begin as underage workers. Moore goes on:
The young man stayed silent as his female coworkers described their fates. He knew that he would probably make manager if he wanted to, or get another job if he didn’t. His colleagues also lacked the simple sovereignty over their own persons that he could take for granted. A 2006 BFC study found that around 30 percent of the garment factory workforce experienced sexual harassment on the job. A more recent 2012 report from the ILO found that number had dropped to 20 percent—a decline almost certainly stemming from the increase in male factory employees during the industry’s expansion.
Not all of Body Horror is about garment work in Cambodia, but the essays in Moore’s new collection do continuously build in some common themes: the difficulty of being a woman in the world, particularly a world defined by capitalism. The horror of the body, especially a body that doesn’t fit the “expected” model.
Capitalism enforces requisite standards, sizes, forms. The very existence of a “plus size” line, for example, implies that “plus size” is an “other,” additional, ancillary option to the main group. It’s just business, right — to have people who fit into “small,” “medium,” and “large” affords clothing lines to make more of less. No matter the people who become outliers, who get less from the constant more, more, more.
Many bodies don’t fit into this mold, both literally and ideologically, and Anne Elizabeth Moore — a self-described “queer crip” woman critic and journalist describes over and over the ways in which capitalism — and the misogyny inherent within — fails her, fails women like her, and fails women across the world.
The collection appears to jump at random from interest to interest — within four essays, she goes from discussing the birth of Standard Time, to revenge-fantasy horror movies, to snake oil, to antibacterial-resistant superbugs — but it holds together under Moore’s enduring eye. As her worldview draws you in, you begin to feel the layers of “horror” Moore walks through daily. In my mind’s eye, I imagined it like loading up a simulated city: first you see a broad, blank area, perhaps checked by latitudinal and longitudinal lines; then, you begin to see the ghostly light-blue skeletons of architectures, scaffolding themselves into buildings; then the skinning, exteriors peeling in to appear like the brick and mortar they would ostensibly be made of; and finally, the movement: tiny cars and people swimming in their frenetic daily cycles. Each layer can be described and articulated in extremely different ways, but together they make a rich simulation of the framework we navigate through every day, at varying stages of awareness.
Yet Moore herself is hyper-aware, and her unflinching worldview had the effect on me of a knife cutting through the wool pulled over my eyes. Often, what appears to be two worlds in opposition or total disconnect to each other — Cambodian garment workers and high-fashion models in LA in “Model Behavior,” for example, or the desire to procreate and the history of patent law in “Cultural Imperative” — are in fact enmeshed, whether by capitalism or misogyny or both.
I’ve previously only known of Moore as a member of the comics world, particularly as a co-founder of Best New American Comics. Before this, she was one of the writers and anthologists of Threadbare, a group of journo-comics relating the state of garment workers and sex workers in the global trade market, as well as a founder of the now-defunct newsprint zine Punk Planet. Body Horror is Moore at her most internal, as she explores her experience as a woman and a person with a chronic, incurable illness in a capitalist society.
Moore’s background in comics bears note: much like we read between the “gutters” of each cel, connecting the dots to understand a cartoonist’s larger meaning or overarching plot, the essays in Body Horror sketch for us a worldview in which capitalism, misogyny, illness, and each of our identities are entwined: sometimes hopelessly, sometimes looser than we would think.
Not to discount another feature of Moore’s work with comics: her sense of humor. In Facebook events promoting the book, Moore accompanies the cover image (illustrated by Xander Marro) with an image of herself, dark eyes widened and staring down the camera. She’s donning a soft, short pink wig a la Natalie Portman in Closer. Her shoulders clenched in a pose of quiet un-chill, a dark strain of blood drips from her nose and spills down over her fuschia-pink lipstick.
One is tempted to be disturbed by this image, but the overall effect is one of playful danger, a self-aware “don’t give a fuck”-edness that characterizes her prose and point of view. Moore builds for us Venn diagrams of how our identities and fears cause us “horror,” analyzed with a sharp eye but delivered kindly (to the reader, if not at all towards its sub-titular subjects) through the mollifying vectors of sass and jokes. (Particularly fun are her many ironic descriptions for menstruation and “feminine products” in “The shameful legacy (and secret promise) of the sanitary napkin disposal bag,” including: seeping lady juice, lady-waste, gore-disposal, and girl blood.
The essay that contains the majority of those evocative descriptors calls to mind earlier discussions of the difficult interaction of capitalism and female empowerment. In bringing two of the most common concerns of the everyday modern feminist — destigmatizing menstruation and workplace equality — Moore complicates their interaction:
Little good can be said about sanitary napkin disposal bags. That is, unless you care about gender equality. For these tiny, decorative, gore-disposal products do more than any other product in the field of feminine hygiene to eliminate the earnings gap between men and women.
Nearly 4,000 patents include the phrase “feminine product disposal,” but very few of these have been awarded for bags created to house soiled feminine hygiene items. In sum, slightly fewer than fifty patents have been granted for sanitary napkin disposal bags—each, legally speaking, a unique approach to personal containers intended to whisk lady-waste away from public view.
So, are menstrual bags good, or are they bad? Do they empower women, or further constrict them? It becomes obvious that this is not a zero-sum game, and Moore illuminates the coexistence of multiple conflicting truths.
Moore’s command of style is on display throughout this collection. She applies careful research, journalistic bravado, and a comedian’s sense of pacing in turns. But, every once in awhile, she just punches you in the gut. In “A few things I have learned about illness in America,” Moore writes, among ten vignettes about her experience with her auto-immune disorder:
Another acquaintance, after a conversation, may comment, “Wow. It’s terrifying that such a thing could so easily happen to me!” Laugh at that person. Laugh at their narcissism, at a worldview that believes that illness picks and chooses victims for a moral or ethical reason, or any reason at all. Laugh at the fact that they feel safe when you know they are not. Hope that they remain safe, because an unjust comeuppance for narcissism is illness. But do not trust that person. They will take from you in your moment of greatest need.
Here — apologies to Satre — horror is other people.
Few people are incisive — or brave — enough to take on Susan Sontag. (Moore: “When intellectual women become ill, they invariably wrestle with Sontag. This does not mean, apparently, that they all read her.”) But, in “Fucking Cancer,” Moore elucidates how, while Sontag rightly derided cancer narratives that reinforced false assumptions about the disease, auto-immune disorders’ (like the upwards of seven Moore has had diagnosed) lack of narratives is partly responsible for killing its victims:
The focus of the patient, the health care team, and those who seek to describe the diseases in question, Sontag argues in Illness as Metaphor, should stay on scientific fact and medical research. Period.
Without going full-bore counter-intuitive Camille Paglia on you, I’d like to suggest that, today, those with a more proliferative disease than cancer may be suffering from the exact opposite dilemma. With autoimmunity, it is the total lack of metaphors and myths surrounding the diseases that kills.
This void of narrative — that is, a lack of representation — and its effects on the invisible party is something we are all too well aware of around this website.
Each essay, though varying wildly, held me rapt with its at-times heartbreaking, at times serious, at (most) times hilarious excoriation of capitalism and the myriad ways in which it enacts “heinous acts” upon the marginalized members of our society. After almost every essay I found myself thinking of a different friend who would find it interesting and struggled to keep myself from sharing the galley copy far and wide. On that basis, I recommend buying a copy for yourself, your friend, your crush, and your mother. I already look forward to including it among the favorites on my shelf.