Feminist thinkers have long focused on the body as an expression of power and a site of social control. As early as 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft proclaimed that ‘‘genteel women are slaves to their bodies’’ and that ‘‘beauty is woman’s scepter’’ (Wollstonecraft 1988). Sixty years later, Sojourner Truth drew attention to how bodies are not only gendered but also racialized in her Ain’t I a Woman speech of 1851. And, since the emergence of the second wave of women’s movements in the US, feminists have been transforming our thinking on gender and bodies through their writings on rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, reproductive rights, beauty contests, eating disorders, sports, disabilities, cosmetic surgery, and more. Despite the recurrent focus on gender and the body, scholars have asked diverse sets of questions from various disciplinary and theoretical perspectives that have changed over time. This article reviews some of the major questions that have been raised about gender and the body and discusses the shifting theoretical approaches that have developed in the literature.
A constant thread in contemporary feminist theory is questioning the source of sex differences. Are sex differences ‘‘naturally’’ produced or are they a result of social cultural production (i.e., nurture)? If sex differences are ‘‘natural,’’ it is thought that they cannot be altered. However, if they are socially constructed, then sex differences could be altered and possibly eliminated. The emergence of the ‘‘nature versus nurture’’ question within feminist theory is directly linked to dominant gender ideologies that posit gender differences as biologically determined and women’s subordination and men’s dominance as natural. Such gender ideologies have a long history in western societies and affect virtual every aspect of women’s and men’s lives in contemporary society. As discussed below, recent feminist scholarship on gender and the body critiques the terms of the nature versus nurture debate and offers a new paradigm that recognizes the inherent interaction of biological and social systems.
Perceptions and experiences of gender and the body in western societies have been grounded in dualistic thinking (Bordo 1993; Fausto Sterling 2000). According to influential male philosophers and theologians within Greco-Christian traditions, two opposing entities constitute human existence: the mind and the body. Within this framework, the mind is understood as being superior to the body, and the body, which is associated with wanton desires, is seen as something to be overcome and controlled. Western discourses on the mind/body split developed along with other dualisms such as male/female and culture/nature. On one axis, the mind, culture, and the masculine have been located and on an opposing axis the body, nature, and the feminine are positioned. Moreover, the male body has been assumed to be the standard and the female body an inadequate deviation from the norm.
Sexist ideas about women’s bodies advanced by philosophers and theologians were strengthened by medical and scientific discourses of the industrial and postindustrial eras. With the professionalization of medicine, male medical doctors became ‘‘experts’’ on women’s bodies. Based more on ideology than empirical evidence, physicians espoused sexist beliefs about women’s embodied physical fragility, intellectual inferiority, and emotional instability. In her book The Eternally Wounded Woman (1990), Patricia Vertinsky shows how the dominant medical discourse of the nineteenth century led to the notion that physical exercise was dangerous to women’s reproductive function.
Not surprisingly, the ‘‘misinformation’’ was meant for privileged women who were pushing for more access to the public arena and not poor, immigrant, and enslaved women who regularly performed physically demanding labor and supposedly reproduced too much.
Since the mid twentieth century, psychologists, sexologists, biologists, and other researchers have battled over theories of the origins of sex differences, gender identities, and gender roles (Fausto Sterling 2000). Corresponding with the development of new technologies, the basis of ‘‘scientific’’ theories about bodily and behavioral differences between females and males moved from genitals to gonads to chromosomes to hormones to brains. As societal views around gender started shifting during the 1970s, feminist theories, which highlighted the importance of gender socialization and other environmental ‘‘nurture’’ factors, entered the debate. The infamous case of the male child who was ‘‘successfully’’ socialized as a girl after his penis was mutilated during a circumcision procedure was offered as proof for the social construction of gender. This evidence, however, was weakened when the socialized girl became a teenager and wanted to become a boy.
Feminist biologist Anne Fausto Sterling (2000) argues much of this debate is deeply limited by dualistic thinking and a devotion to the notion that there are two, and only two, mutually exclusive sexes. Fausto Sterling’s work suggests that sex is more of a continuum and that the body is changeable over the life course rather than fixed at birth. She rejects the framework that views the body and the circumstances in which it reproduces as separable. Instead, she and other scholars theorize an interactive biosocial model in which internal reproductive structures and external social, historical, and environmental factors are inseparable – interacting over time and circumstance. Grosz (1994) uses the metaphor of a Mo¨bius strip to illustrate how social meanings external to the body are incorporated into its physiological expression, as well as unconscious and conscious behavior.
Nowhere are the politics of the debate about sex and gender differences clearer than in the debates over bodies that exhibit sexual ambiguity (Kessler 1998). Although intersexuality is a fairly common phenomenon, intersexuals disappear from our view because doctors quickly ‘‘correct’’ them with surgery. Kessler shows how the medical management of intersexuality (repeated surgeries and hormone treatments) contributes to the construction of dichotomized, idealized genitals and normalizing beliefs about gender and sexuality. She argues that acceptance of genital and gender variability will mean the subversion of the equation that genitals equal gender.
As mentioned above, the emergence of the second wave women’s movement sparked a wealth of new research on gender and the body. Much of the earlier work focused on how women’s bodies were regulated, controlled, or violated. The body at this stage was viewed as a site through which masculine power operated rather than as an object of study in and of itself. The desire to counter theories of biological determinism and promote theories of social constructionism led feminists to sidestep theorizing the body. Likewise, the conceptual distinction between sex and gender, which posits sex as the biological/physiological and gender as the social/cultural, may have falsely constructed disciplinary boundaries that led feminist scholars to focus on the social (i.e., gender) and ignore the biological (i.e., sex).
The recent ‘‘discursive turn’’ in feminist theory and the development of poststructural challenges to binary constructs and dualistic thinking have encouraged new theorizing on gender and the body (Conboy et al. 1997). Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, some feminist scholars are viewing bodies as texts which can be read as a statement of gender relations. Working within this framework, Judith Butler (1992) has tried to build a non-dualistic account of the body and reclaim the material body for feminist thought. Butler conceptualizes the body as a system that simultaneously produces and is produced by social meaning and shows how transgressive body politics can challenge the discursive limits of ‘‘sex.’’
While drawing on poststructuralist thought and insights from recent scholarship on gender and the body, Bordo (1993) cautions feminist scholars not to overemphasize women’s embodied resistance at the expense of examining how domination is enacted upon and through female bodies. In her analyses of eating disorders, plastic surgery, media images, and the slender body, Bordo acknowledges the possibility of women’s resistance, but also draws attention to the overwhelming power of disciplinary and normalizing processes surrounding women’s bodies in our postmodern world. The emergent field of feminist disability studies also interrogates normalizing discourses and practices of gendered bodies, but draws attention to bodies that are culturally identified as sick, impaired, ugly, deformed, or malfunctioning (Thomson 2002). Feminist disability scholars critique research on bodies, embodiment, and gender that ignores how the hierarchical ability/disability system intersects with other systems of power in shaping gendered experiences of women and men.
One of the most symbolically important social institutions for the naturalization of gender differences in contemporary societies is that of competitive sports. The sociology of sport, in particular, has contributed greatly to our collective understanding of gender and the body by examining the relationships between the symbolic representations of the body and embodied experiences within concrete sociohistorical con texts. The literature on gender and sport, which includes the theoretical tensions and turns out lined above, has contributed valuable insights on femininities, masculinities, and the body (Hall 1996; McKay et al. 2000). The scholarship of Jennifer Hargreaves (1994, 2000) is exemplary in its examination of women’s historical exclusion in competitive sport and the seemingly irreconcilable tension between femininity and athleticism. Her work illuminates how competitive sport, throughout history and around the world, has been a site for both maintaining and challenging dominant notions of gendered bodies.
In addressing questions about gender and the body, the history of sex testing or gender verification within the Olympic Games movement provides an ideal case study of the shifting discourses and ‘‘science’’ around gendered/sexed bodies. Sparked by the growing political anxieties of the Cold War, in 1968 the International Olympic Committee instituted sex testing of female athletes, first through visual examinations and then by ‘‘scientific’’ chromosomal testing. Over the years, it was shown that fitting bodies into two mutually exclusive categories of female and male is not so simple. The suspension of gender testing in 2000 serves as an acknowledgment of the complexities of a body’s sex and a recognition, at least at some level, that labeling someone a woman or a man is a social decision (Fausto Sterling 2000).
Recent feminist theorizing on the body and embodiment has encouraged social movement scholars to focus attention on the role of the body in collective social action. Using the body as a site of resistance has long been a strategy of collective protest against gender oppression. Suffragists in the US and England at the turn of the twentieth century adopted the tactic of hunger strikes to draw attention to their cause. Parkins (2000) argues that the daring acts of protest by suffragists challenged dominant ideas about women’s bodily comportment and physical capabilities, as well as embodied notions of citizenship. The more recent history of silent vigils of the Women in Black movement, which first emerged in Jerusalem in 1988 to protest the Israeli occupation of Palestine, illustrates how the body still serves as an agent of social and political change (Sasson Levy & Rapoport 2003). The recent theorizing in the social movements literature on the role of emotions and passion in political struggle has also led to new insights on gender and the body (see Goodwin & Jasper 2004). As the diverse and lengthy history of embodied social protest suggests and the various theoretical frameworks and empirical research on gender and the body illustrate, the body has been and seems will remain a central nexus to our understanding of gendered experiences, ideologies, and practices.
- Bordo, R. (1993) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Butler, (1992) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘‘Sex.’’ Routledge, New York.
- Conboy, K., Medina, N., & Stanbury, S. (Eds.) (1997) Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Fausto-Sterling, (2000) Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. Basic Books, New York.
- Goodwin, & Jasper, J. (2004) Rethinking Social Movement: Structure, Meaning, and Emotion. Row- man & Littlefield, Lanham, MD.
- Grosz, (1994) Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporal Feminism. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
- Hall, A. (1996) Feminism and Sporting Bodies: Essays on Theory and Practice. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
- Hargreaves, (1994) Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Sports. Routledge, London.
- Hargreaves, (2000) Heroines of Sport: The Politics of Difference and Identity. Routledge, London.
- Kessler, (1998) Lessons for the Intersexed. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
- McKay, , Messner, M., & Sabo, D. (Eds.) (2000) Masculinities, Gender Relations, and Sport. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Parkins, (2000) Protesting Like a Girl: Embodiment, Dissent and Feminist Agency. Feminist Theory 1(1): 59-78.
- Sasson-Levy, & Rapoport, T. (2003) Body, Gender, and Knowledge in Protest Movements: The Israeli Case. Gender and Society 17(3): 379-403.
- Thomson, R. G. (2002) Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory. NWSA Journal 14(3): 1
- Vertinsky, (1990) The Eternally Wounded Woman: Women, Doctors and Exercise in the Late Nineteenth Century. Manchester University Press, Manchester.
- Wollstonecraft, (1988) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In: Rossi, A. (Ed.), The Feminist Papers. Northeastern University Press, Boston, pp. 40-85.
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