Docile Bodies Rising Up

First I want to thank Deirdre, the feminist sociology professor I met at a viewing of a film about a legendary life model last year. She recommended ‘The Politics of Women’s Bodies; Sexuality, Appearance and Behaviour’, a selection of essays collated by Rose Weitz. Weitz explains how historically women were expected to separate their maternal and sexual aspects, as men were unable to accept that the women they wanted to be nurturing their future generations might also have needs. To a large extent this still stands. Hence the duality, the double standard; a woman is either a Madonna or a whore.

In ‘Believing is Seeing’, Judith Lorber discusses how 1 in 2000 births are in fact intersex (hermaphrodite) but this is covered up immediately by “corrective” surgery (which turns them all into females as it’s easier) as well as by a society that doesn’t wish to acknowledge what is outside of its binary vision. Our whole idea of ‘male’ and ‘female’ is a complete farce! Intersex people frequently report feeling trapped in the wrong body, so physically and socially constructed as our lives may be. Karin A Martin describes how we become gendered bodies; what we assume as nature is not just decided by surgical tradition, or nature; but by long held cultural beliefs. In primary school we learn how to behave and move like boys and girls. Girls are taught to take up less space.

In ‘Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernisation of Patriarchal Power’ Sandra Lee Bartky takes Foucault’s assertion that our bodies are insidiously controlled by the most subtle means, i.e. by the fear inside our own minds, which makes us into ‘docile bodies’ only too willing to move to the beat of the elite; and takes it to feminism’s logical step further.

“Subjected and practised bodies”

In ‘Daring to Desire’ Deborah L Tolman debunks a myth which supposes that women are less sexually inclined than men (where did they get that idea?), by showing that teenage girls feel anxiety about showing the true extent of their sexual feelings because of fear about what others will think of them. Written in 1994 this is somewhat out of date and I would like to see the updated version. When I was popping my cherry and bursting my bubble in the early ’90s, if I held off behaving like a total nymphomaniac at all times it was because I only liked goths! Rather I was kind of picky, and liked to be in control. I felt safe in a scene which allowed my sexuality and independence to be exercised. If I thought a guy was hitting on me I lost interest; I wanted to make the conquest. I wasn’t typical in a mainstream way, but on the goth scene I was not unusual. In ‘So Full of Myself as a Chick’, Amy C Wilkins examines a West Coast American town’s goth population for their unique standards of women’s sexuality as demonstrated during the ’90s. This is comparable to what I grew up with. Women on top and in charge, up to a point, which is the message Wilkins has. Polyamorous relationships as frequently exercised by goths still favour male sexuality in the end. Women’s bisexuality is used as an excuse for allowing lesbian relations yet somehow denying women total autonomy. That was then. I am not a practising goth now but sometimes visit. Not being among them it’s hard to see where they are at. I see the younger women as triumphant as ever riding a wave of freedom, at the same time I know how age can catch up with you, and pull you down (as the drugs wear off?)

‘Designing Women’ looks at how women who undergo elective mammoplasty corroborate existing patriarchal hegemony. They are simultaneously pawns and free agents who recognise their enhanced power as women with breasts of a certain shape and size, in a culture predisposed to appreciate such. “…the hegemony of beauty is exercised less in one-on-one interactions wherein a significant other expresses dissatisfaction with a specific woman’s beauty than with women’s internalisation of the generalised other, communicated through the hegemonic gaze.”

Injuries of class; like deviants tortured publicly in the 17th century, poor women bear bodily marks of their crime to remind us what could become of us. “The bodies of poor women and children, scarred and mutilated by state-mandated material deprivation… work as spectacles… for socialising and controlling bodies…” Branded with Infamy, Vivyan C Adair

Letting go of the Internalised Male Gaze

We (women) each have a censor inside of us judging us from a (perceived) man’s perspective. Not bad since we are often trying to attract them – good to be on top of what they may think of us. One step ahead of them. Yet debilitating when taken to an extreme so that concern over our appearance and behaviour dominates our lives, taking up far too much time, and at the cost of far more important issues – like getting equal pay and decent maternity rights. And when our perception of the male gaze informs us that we must relentlessly diet or modify ourselves this is doubtless damaging for health mental and physical. Our internalisation of the ‘male’ gaze is not fictitious though – we glean it from media’s obsession. We women are not supposed to take up physical space – or by extension power space; we’re not supposed to have our own voices.

In ‘Letting Ourselves Go’, Cecilia Hartley exposes how fat women are the only real feminists. For my entire adult life I have had a body that is deemed acceptable as a woman’s; a little pre-pubescent in form but not without curves, I don’t have to diet to remain a healthy size 8, in fact I eat quite a lot of what I want. I don’t go to the gym, but I am a compulsive cyclist and if I don’t get that buzz racing round the city I start to feel restless. And I hold tricky poses day in day out because that gets me high too. Natural expression and genetics. What am I doing pushing body confidence? Sharing a good feeling; and besides it’s more than just bodily boldness; confidence spans so many realms. If I can give something I take for granted to lots of others, maybe the universe will show me what has previously eluded me.

There is so much more I could say about this thought provoking book, but I must to bed and finish reading it!


The Pieta at Spirited Bodies 10; 8/2/13, photo by Gil Limor

The Pieta at Spirited Bodies 10; 8/2/13, both photos by Gil Limor

One thought on “Docile Bodies Rising Up

  1. My only knowledge about ‘intersex’ was from the book which I found illuminating, Middlesex.
    It relates the personal experiences of an intersex person, with I think great sympathy.


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