About a Boob or The Hermeneutics of a Woman’s Body


“Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write your self. Your body must be heard.” – Hélène Cixous

“It’s almost like our tits carry the burden of this culture of death.” – Kathy Acker

Let’s talk about boobs.

When my editor/publisher was choosing a cover for my forthcoming book, The Chronology of Water, she asked me if I had any ideas. I did. In my possession was an abstract series of unusual photographs taken by Andy Mingo depicting a woman’s body in water. Since the central metaphor of my book is swimming, I forwarded the photos to my editor. She loved them. And from among the photos, she chose one for the cover of my book.

It’s a boob.

With full frontal nip.

Yes, I will show you in a minute.

What happened next of course is that the book went into design and production. We all understood we were making a cover that was at the very least atypical. Possibly controversial. Absolutely, as it turned out, problematic for some in terms of visually showcasing the cover. For example, Facebook does not “like” naked boobs.

At every stage, the question why haunted me. I mean, considering the world we currently inhabit—and by that I mean the high-capitalism consumer-culture world, in which women’s bodies no longer stand for something bought and sold, but unalterably ARE the thing being bought and sold—why would a boob matter anymore?

Further, considering the absolute addiction our culture has to sex and violence on television, film, and in certain genres of commercial books, many of which exhibit plots that are based on the classic rape/murder-threat-against-women trope, so eloquently delineated over the years by waves of feminist film and literary criticism, what threat is a single tit?

Still, booksellers and professional literary folks began to warn both me and the editor/publisher that the books would not be displayed or sold in certain stores or venues or even … states.

Yay, Texas.

Let me stop here and lay something out for you: my publisher/editor is Rhonda Hughes. She runs Hawthorne Books in Portland, Oregon.

And she has big balls.

Big enough balls to print the cover she wanted, to take on the naysayers and to come up with a solution for the display problem. Interestingly, it’s called a belly band. Which basically amounts to a neat charcoal gray “blanket” that goes around the book and covers up the boob. Sly one, she is.

Here are the two covers, with boob and with discretely covered boob:

About these covers, I am ecstatic. I love Rhonda Hughes, I love Hawthorne Books, and I love both covers. For different reasons. I mean, that orange type on the charcoal gray looks swank, yes?

But, as it turns out, there is an unsettling gender issue at play when we talk about a book cover entering the market with a nude woman on it.

Specifically, if a woman, or in this case, two women—since I have the luxury of creative input with this most exquisite editrix and press—quite consciously make the decision to present a female nude on the cover of the book they intend to seriously enter into the market, a crisis of interpretation arises.

I mean that in the Derridian sense.

The crisis is this: When it comes to representation, it is not entirely OK for women to insist upon the representation of their own bodies in their own terms. And by OK, I mean culturally sanctioned, commercially viable, literarily or intellectually respected. And when I say in their own terms, I mean with a specific representational validity and aim, and without apology. You are just going to have to trust me with this next statement when I say, virtually NO agents or mainstream or commercial presses would touch this cover. Few literary presses would. Ditto for some of the sexually explicit content in the book.

There appear to be two main reasons for this. The first involves when and where and why you can present nudity in America, and its relation to our notions of obscenity. Put more simply, if it’s buck naked, it’s “pornographic.” However idiotic that notion is.

A very smart and successful person I know told me, “Oh my God! You can’t have that cover! No one will want to be seen holding it in public, you know, like on a bus or at a restaurant. And stores won’t sell it! And I was planning on giving it to several of my friends who are very important women over fifty!”

Hmmm. The same bus, with the potential person holding my book in it, is barreling by billboards with giant (yet tiny!) women in recline, half-clothed in black velvet to sell booze. Further down the road there is a billboard with a hot chick in a bikini and a Bud Light can pressed up against her rack. On the corner is a woman literally making her living with her body. And the woman next to me? On the bus today? She’s reading Vogue. Have you looked at Vogue lately?

I know what my friend meant though. She meant people would be embarrassed to be seen with a boob book in their hands. Though it’s true enough that LOTS of other people would be downright skippy and proud to hold one in public and wave it around—I have a boob book! HA!—she also meant, at least implicitly, you can’t have a nude woman on the cover of your book if you intend to be taken seriously by the wizards in charge of marketing and consumption in the literary industry. With of course some notable exceptions, where nudity is, you know, HOW the thing is sold.

Ironically, while maintaining a rather puritanical attitude toward the naked body, America is one of the largest producers of pornography in the world. Not to mention our first rate success at using naked women to sell EVERYTHING UNDER THE SUN—the glamorous, stick-thin provocatively dressed or barely dressed unattainable anorexites and push-up-bra heads among the chief bestselling images.

The second reason is slightly more covert, hiding under the cover of a book cover. Comic book and pulp fiction covers have consistently made use of the half-clothed or unclothed buxom beauty, but somehow those forms are considered “low art” enough to earn them a kind of outsider status in terms of the use of nudes. They are a few steps up from porn, and an inbred kin of the good kind of trashy. So they get a pass. Phew. Similarly, you can find a variety of semi-hot, shadow-nude women on the covers of certain pigeonholed genre commercial fiction, as noted earlier.

I think there is another reason. The individuals who have most often contacted me with danger! danger! warnings are women. I don’t think male readers mind a boob book cover. I could be wrong about that. It’s just a hunch. But the women who have spoken to me directly about the boob cover have fallen into two camps: either they think it is beautiful or radical or just fine—no biggie—or they think I’m shooting myself in the foot (or boob) in terms of buying and selling my work—the terms that are already stacked against women in the literary industry.

See VIDA’s statistics on women in publishing. Also see the history of feminism in America.

Let me tell you why I became insistent about the cover. My memoir is, at its heart, about how I survived the life I was dealt, kind of like we all do. The central and enduring metaphor that holds the story together is swimming. And the central site of meaning in this story I have told about making a self from the ruins of a life is a body. A real body.

An eating, fucking, shitting, peeing, sweating, bleeding, body.

If anyone bothered to ask me, I would tell them this: I consider the body to be an epistemological and ontological site. A place where meaning is generated and negated and where the terms of being and non-being are endlessly played out. Not to conquer and assert the “I.” But a site of endless corporeal signification.

And yes, I mean that in the Kristevan sense.

I just get the feeling not many people are going to ask me about Kristeva when they look at the cover of my book. You know?

Part of the dire problem is that it is quite difficult to make the assertion that one owns ones mode of representation and ones mode of production and the meaning making operations of ones body as a woman.

Yes, I mean that in the Marxist sense.

As it turns out, those ideas—commodity, labor, production, distribution, epistemology and ontology—seem unequivocally reserved for the realms of philosophic discourse, on the one hand—and in particular, whether we want it to be true or not, a rather patriarchal philosophical discourse, and on the other hand, market driven rules and regulations, another patriarchal bastion which does not include women owning the signification modes.

Although, somehow or other French women intellectuals are allowed to make such assertions: Kristeva, Cixous, Irigaray, Duras, de Beauvoir (is it in the wine?).

Oddly, in America it’s apparently not OK (see earlier note on what I mean by OK) to claim the body as the “site” of meaning-making that I am suggesting, unless I follow a very particular male philosophic trajectory, or, worse, a Christian master narrative in which women figure quite disappointingly. I mean jeeeeez. The two Marys? What promise! What radicalism! Alas, subsumed by the story of a pretty and charismatic man and a larger than life father. Perhaps that is part of the reason the pregnant and maternal body is relegated to the sphere of the domestic—where, as luck would have it, no form of epistemology of ontology is allowed to be born—EVEN THOUGH without Mary’s actual body, god is just another guy standing around with a dick in his hand.

Similarly, it is apparently not OK to circumvent the sexually exploitative representation of female bodies so characteristic of television and film by presenting it as a speech act—as an act of representation designed to tease forth the relationship between signifier and signified, or the ground upon which the story of a woman’s body and the image of a woman’s body are precisely articulated by and through a nudity not bound to poles—no pun intended—well maybe just a little—of not just signifier and signified, but also of capitalism and the buying and selling of women’s bodies as objects.

See Sut Jhally and Killing Us Softly 1, Killing Us Softly 2, 3, 4, etc…

Also, see Zizek on woman as father lately.

But maybe you think I’m full of shit. Maybe the boob and nip on the cover are simply recommitting the age-old Sex Sells paradigm. Putting aside for the moment that the publisher is being asked to cover it up in many cases, to answer that charge one must look seriously at the cover. I mean closely. I mean using critical thinking and close reading. Hold the book boob up to your face.

Jeez—not that close. Ew.

That body ain’t no airbrushed hot model’s body. That boob is not “man-made.” That nip isn’t quite right—and what’s not quite right about it is that it’s a real nipple. It sits how it sits, is sags a bit, there are imperfections all around it. Also, I have it on good authority that it’s the boob and nip of a woman closing in on fifty years old. If Hawthorne Books wanted to exploit a naked woman on the cover of my book to sell the hell out of it, they definitely should have hired a … you know, market-tested hottie.

But I admit that’s a little bit of a pot-shot answer.

A more serious answer is: this is what happens when you put the mode of representation, production and distribution in the hands of, well, smarty women. There is no silicone or push-up bra or tantalizing sexualization, fetishization, or ironic stance. There are freckles and saggages and discolorations.

The cover is showing you something about an ordinary woman’s body. Inside, the text is saying something about how an ordinary woman found a self by and through her own body. Between seeing and saying, a dialogic exists.

Yes, I mean that in the Bakhtinian sense.

The boob image, and even more gasp-worthy, the sexual explicitness of the story inside are in dialogue with all the images and stories that have come before. Other women, other women’s bodies, other boobs—boobs that have been endlessly suckled and fondled and kissed and made full or sagged or been riddled with cancer—mothers, sisters, daughters, lovers. Grandmothers even.

I’m going on and on about a boob.

But the thing is, it’s just not a boob in the way we are used to thinking about boob. Particularly in America. Look at it. Face off with it. And if you get tired, or cranky, or disturbed, or bored, just put that cool little charcoal cover with the aesthetically pleasing orange type back over it.

The difference between this boob and other boobs out there today? This boob is talking to you.

Lidia Yuknavitch is the nationally bestselling author of the novels The Book of Joan, The Small Backs of Children, and Dora: A Headcase, and the memoir The Chronology of Water. She lives in Portland, OR. More from this author →