May 04, 2007

Susan Bordo on The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity

Reconstructing Feminist Discourse on the Body

The body – what we eat, how we dress, the daily rituals through which we attend to the body – is a medium of culture (165).

Bordo suggests in thsi study that the body can be a metaphor for culture. Plato, Hobbes and Irigaray suggest that an imagination of body morphology has provided a blueprint for diagnosis and/or vision of social and political life. The body is not only a text of culture but also a direct practical locus of social control. Through habitual routines, culture is a “made body”, so it is beyond consciousness. Political strivings may be undermined by the life of our bodies – it is not the craving body of Plato, Augustine and Freud, but the “docile body” regulated by cultural norms of cultural life.

Foucault highlights the primacy of practice over belief. The body is controlled not be ideology but through the organisation of time, space, our daily lives; our bodies are trained, shaped and “impressed with the stamp of prevailing historical forms of selfhood/desire, masculinity/femininity”(166). Women are spending more time on the management of their bodies: this intensification is diversionary and subverting. It is the pursuit of a female ideal. Female bodies become docile bodies: “bodies whose forces and energies are habituated to external regulation, subjection, transformation, ‘improvement’”(166). Diet, make-up and dress are the central organising principles of a woman’s day. It is less socially orientated and more focused on self-modification. Inherent in this project is a feeling of lack as women never feel good enough. The preoccupation with the body is a backlash.

Bordo suggests that feminists need to develop a political discourse to combat this. This requires reconstructing the 1960s/70s feminist paradigm of the oppressors versus the oppressed, the villains versus the victims. Like Foucault, we must abandon the idea of power as being possessed by one group and levelled against another; instead it is a network of practices, institutions and technologies. Secondly, we need an analytics adequate to describe a power whose central mechanisms are not repressive but constitutive (establishing). Thirdly, we need a discourse that will account for subversion of potential rebellion i.e. political backlash – how does the subject become enmeshed in collusion with forces that sustain her own oppression?

The Body as a Text of Femininity – Hysteria, Agoraphobia and Anorexia Nervosa

There is a certain symptomatology in these conditions: loss of mobility, loss of voice, the inability to leave home, feeding others while starving oneself, taking up space and whittling down the space that one’s body takes up. The body of the sufferer is inscribed with ideological construction of femininity emblematic of the period in question – that is an ideal. Femininity is written in exaggerated terms. The body becomes a graphic text, a statement about gender.

Hysteria is an exaggeration of stereotypically feminine traits. The nineteenth century lady was supposed to have the characteristics of delicacy, dreaminess, sexual passivity, having a charming lability and a capricious emotional state. (labile = unstable, apt to slip or change). This was the norm in femininity. The symptoms of hysteria were dissociations, drifting or fogging of perception, nervous tremors, faints and anaesthesias – these were all concretisations of the feminine mystique. The term hysterical was often interchangeable with the word feminine.

Femininity has now become a standardised visual image. We learn the rules of what a ‘lady’ is through bodily discourse – images tell us what face, body shape and clothes we need to have. Agoraphobia and anorexia are parodies of the female ideal. Agoraphobia began to rise in women in the 1950s and 60s when the female ideal was asserted as being situated in the home along with babies, sex and house work. Agoraphobia parodies this ideal: “If you want me in the home, I’ll stay home with a vengeance!”

The obsession of the anorectic/anorexic is hyper-slenderness for women. (anorectal = of or relating to the anus and rectum). It is meaning that makes the body admirable. Slenderness is the citadel of contemporary and historical meaning to the anorexic. The rules governing contemporary femininity are painfully described on the anorexic’s body. The construction of femininity is a double bind that legislates contradictory ideals.
1. Culture still widely advertises domestic conceptions of femininity casting woman as the dominant emotional and physical nurturer; she must feed others not herself – it is a totally other-orientated emotional economy. Female hunger for public power, independence, and sexual gratification must be contained. This is etched on the anorexic body.
2. The woman must balance female virtues with masculine language in professional arenas: self control, determination, cool, emotional discipline, mastery etc. A modern lifestyle must include self control and mastery with the advent of health kicks and gyms. The anorexic pursues these values. E.g. The Aliens character, Ripley nicknamed by Weaver as ‘Rambolina’.

Protest and Retreat in the Same Gesture

In all the conditions mentioned, the woman’s body becomes a surface on which conventional constructions of femininity are exposed. It is a language of suffering that speaks the pathology and violence lurking at the horizon of normal femininity. Pathology is an embodied protest, not a productive one but still a protest for those who do not have the language to speak.

The hysteric has a language of protest; Anna O’s aphasia rejected the symbolic order for the “mother-tongue” – that semiotic babble of infancy. (Dianne Hunter, Catherine Clement, Helene Cixous). (aphasia = the inability to express thought in words, or liability to understand thought as expressed in the spoken or written words of others, caused by brain disease or damage). Agoraphobia is a strike against the expectations of house wifely functions like shopping, driving children to school and accompanying husbands to social events. (Robert Seidentery). Hysteria prevents the wife from having to be the caretaker of others, while anorexia is a form of unconscious female protest that indicts a culture that suppresses female hunger. Yet the gesture that expresses protest can also express retreat – does the anorexia assuage a guilt that contemporary women will lead freer, less circumscribed lives than our mothers? The anorexic protest is self defeating since the life of the body becomes an all-absorbing fetish. Muteness is not the best way to protest.

Collusion, Resistance and the Body

Female pathology is a socially formed repression. Anorexia emerges out of conventional female practice – the diet! The Anorexic body is admired for its strength of will. The anorexic comes to hate feminine traits – does this connect to the cultural association of curvaceousness with incompetence? (Brett Silverstein). This is the way for a woman to enter a male body if not a male world.

Textuality, Praxis and the Body

(praxis = the practice or practical side of an art or science as distinct from its theoretical side; customary or accepted practice; a practical exercise). The notions of the useful body and the intelligible body are significant – the intelligible body is related to scientific, philosophic and aesthetic representations of the body. Nineteenth century women needed a feminine praxis to create a certain look: strait-lacing, minimal eating, reduced mobility – this rendered the female body unfit to perform activities outside designated space. This is the useful body responding to aestheticism’s norm. Bordo suggests that we must give attention to the useful body.


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