Monday, March 31, 2003

Here's a reflective reading essay I wrote for a class I'm taking:

In the course of my reading of Feminism and the Body and Out of the Dead House, my reflections have centered on one question: Why is it important for feminists to study the body? I went into the texts with this question and some doubt; I had heard a lot of scholars use the phrase “critical practices of embodiment” or a variant of it, but I had a “so what?” attitude toward body studies. I tend to be biased against scholarship if scholars do not foreground their work in a political context or make clear the political significance. The scholars in Feminism and the Body argue that the body and perceptions of the body are powerful political entities and articulate the body’s role in science and society. I now realize that studying social constructions of and discursive uses of the body is of paramount importance to feminism. What I would like to do in this essay is highlight the importance of feminist studies of the body by pointing to two essays which, in my opinion, best demonstrate this importance: “The Anthropometry of Barbie: Unsettling Ideals of the Feminine Body in Popular Culture” by Jacqueline Urla and Alan C. Swedlund and “Skeletons in the Closet: The First Illustrations of the Female Skeleton in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy” by Londa Schiebinger. I will also mention Mary Putnam Jacobi’s study of menstruation as a contribution to the understanding of the female body, one that ran counter to predominately-male medicine’s conceptualization of the female body. I will examine these pieces in chronological order, providing a glimpse of studies of the body in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nineteenth century, and twentieth century.


The strength of Schiebinger’s essay rests on her solid contextualization of the first female skeleton illustrations. She claims that “natural law” philosophy, advocated by Locke and Kant, was the Zeitgeist. The state of nature (or, rather, European patriarchy’s view of nature) was considered correct, and society was to be determined by nature. At the same time, the bourgeoisie was emerging, democracy was becoming more popular, and people started to question what role women should play in society. The science of women’s health was being taken out of the hands of female midwives and appropriated by male doctors. Schiebinger makes a cause-and-effect argument that this revolutionary questioning of women’s possible social equality led to the focus on the body. The two main body parts in question were the skull and the pelvis. Anatomists claimed that the woman’s pelvis, larger than the man’s, indicated that her place was in the domestic sphere, bearing children. The man’s larger skull meant that he should pursue intellectual endeavors and a career in the public sphere. When Samuel Thomas von Soemmerring pointed out that “women’s skulls are actually heavier than men’s in the sense that the female skull occupies greater proportion of total body weight (1/6 for women; 1/8 or 1/10 for men),” John Barclay, in a rather anticlimactic patriarchal reversal, claimed that “one needn’t conclude that women’s larger skulls are loaded with heavy and high-powered brains. Rather than a mark of intelligence, large skulls signal women’s incomplete growth” (42, emphasis in original). Women were then associated physiologically and mentally with children. Schiebinger succeeds in making me take notice of ways that the body has been used to uphold a racist, patriarchal society, and further succeeds in demonstrating that studies of the body are worthwhile feminist projects.


One century later, women were starting to become physicians. Susan Wells studies women’s influence on discourse about bodies in Out of the Dead House. I am particularly interested in Mary Putnam Jacobi’s contribution to this discourse. Historically, women’s bodies have been associated with slovenly chaos, mainly because of the menstrual cycle and hormonal changes. In fact, women have only recently been included in clinical trials of drugs and studied in terms of how illnesses such as heart disease affect them differently. Putnam Jacobi’s essay argued against the common prescription of rest for women (as narrated horrifyingly by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wall-paper”), saying that women are just as strong and fit for physical and mental activity during menstruation as any other time. I am interested in the fact that her findings come from real women via a survey. Wells argues that the survey is “not an allegory of control but a performance that inscribes the relentlessly lay voices of women within the discourses of medicine. The survey was a tactic for reclaiming from medical surveillance the experience of the monthly period, an event which could define a nineteenth-century woman as a perpetual patient” (175). Although I would argue that Putnam Jacobi’s essay barely made a dent in the common perception of women’s bodies as chaotic and defective, I believe it is important feminist work to uncover and appreciate the efforts of women to subvert male-dominated culture.


Skipping ahead another century, Urla and Swedlund study body image in late twentieth-century American society. They contextualize their argument by noting the dramatic rise in dieting, plastic surgery, the fashion industry, and the cosmetics industry, to which I would add eating disorders. They argue that anthropometry, or measurement of human bodies, is a science loaded with cultural and national biases, no matter who is doing the measuring. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, interest started building in setting standards for the ideal human body. In 1945, the statues “Norm” and “Norma” were unveiled. Urla and Swedlund say that “[b]etween the two wars, nationalist interests had fueled eugenic interests and provoked a deepening concern about the physical fitness of the American people. Did Americans constitute a distinctive physical ‘type’; were they puny and weak as some Europeans had alleged, or were they physically bigger and stronger than their European ancestors?” (411). According to Urla and Swedlund, this nationalism informed the decision of what the “perfect” male and female bodies looked like. “Norma” was “everything an American woman should be in a time of war: she was fit, strong-bodied, and at the peak of her reproductive potential” (412). They point out that, while the medical community was promoting Norma as the standard of bodily perfection, the cultural ideal was determined by the fashion industry, and they go on to point to Barbie as a kind of answer to Norma—a body that, if real, would be anorectic. Young girls play with Barbie and form a tactile relationship with Barbie’s body, dressing and undressing her. This experience with Barbie, and with the other popular images of “ideal” bodies, leads women to become “self-policing subject[s], [selves] committed to a relentless self-surveillance” (qtd. in Urla and Swedlund 419). I believe that this is another reason it is important for feminists to study the body: the idea of inscription. Women’s inscribing cultural values on their bodies can be quite dangerous, and capitalist culture will take every opportunity to sell those values.