Mind Your Bodies

So it’s about time I started rambling about my thesis topic, like I’m not already behind on it. If you think my topic (the female body, just to be general here) is a bit trivial, look at it this way: Many Americans will be voting in the Presidential elections this year. For a significant number of those voters, that vote will be determined by whether a given candidate favors abortion or not. They will vote for representatives that are either pro-choice or pro-life pregnancy. Their vote will be reduced to a question over the rights of a female and her body. Women’s bodies are hot political territory to be contested.

A few weeks ago the Pope was visiting Sydney for World Youth Day, a major event. That Sunday, a news item came on whereby three protestors showed up to a Melbourne church dressed up as condoms. They were protesting the Catholic church’s opposition to condoms in light of the global AIDS crisis. Church-goers were pissed. The Catholic church explicitly opposes the use of condoms and contraception. Can you imagine? No contraception and no condoms! In this day and age, it baffles my mind. I believe this demonstrates how women’s bodies are actively controlled even by the church. Women’s freedom to choose when to have children and their right to safe sex are directed by the church? Catholicism is so strong in some of the poorest parts of the world where the last thing anybody needs is another child or a HIV diagnosis. This is an extremely serious problem.

Through a very gendered system, bodies become sites for control, and not only women’s bodies (think about capital punishment, etc.).  But it’s clear that women’s bodies get a lot more attention, politically and institutionally. Somebody always wants to say what women should and shouldn’t be doing with their bodies.

Women (speaking for the West) are taught that their bodies are naturally flawed and unlovable. That their bodies are out of control, they bleed every month, are smelly and disgusting, and that they have to be disciplined intensely. They are conditioned to learn ways of managing their bodies, by controlling their appetites, controlling their weight, and controlling the pain that comes with so many beauty practices. They are encouraged to learn to love their bodies or modify them so that they become more lovable. As if their bodies did not deserve love in the first place. Most importantly, they are indoctrinated with the reality that their bodies are under constant watch. Think Weight Watchers. The social surveillance of women’s bodies is everywhere. The “male gaze” is often not the greatest problem in my opinion. Self-surveillance and women’s surveillance of each other’s bodies is literally out of control.

It’s also interesting that some bodies are more privileged than others. Slavery and colonialism showed us that black bodies were more primitive, only good for abusive physical labor. Foucault tells us that “the body is the inscribed surface of events” and that it is a useful force only “if it is both a productive body and a subjected body.” History becomes written on bodies, especially those that are subjected.

Are you convinced that our bodies are important? I am. Hopefully I will narrow all this down and make a useful arguement for African women’s bodies, which have been subjected and managed in some really interesting ways.

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~ by misswretched on August 29, 2008.

3 Responses to “Mind Your Bodies”

  1. Man….how many topics did you cover with this entry. There are so many directions that one can take when discussing the female body that its easy to get lost. One point that you made though that I actually think transcends Western society is that a woman’s menstrual cycle has been something long looked at as unclean…check out the Bible and the Koran. Can you imagine, the very act that gives life, seen as unclean!

    Also, I’m sure you’ve run across this in all your readings and such, but the story of Sarah Baartman, the South African woman whose body was put on display for all of Europe to see. Urghhh, makes my stomach turn everytime I think/read about her life.

  2. De, I know this was a lot of stuff…but a lot of issues to get me started. I didn’t know about Sarah Baartman but I just read and watched her story. Fascinating, I’ll be blogging about it next, do you see the modern day Hottentot Venuses?!

  3. You might also want to check out the life and work of Josephine Baker. She is an interesting person to investigate. She may or may not be relevant to your work.

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