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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). Second and third wave US feminists have transformed our thinking on gender and the body through their writings on rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, reproductive rights, beauty contests, eating disorders, sports, disabilities, cosmetic surgery, and more.
Western discourses on the dualism of the mind and body evolved along with other polarities 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. Euro-American societies in particular have constructed the male body as the standard and the female body as an inadequate deviation from the norm. Sexist ideas about bodies advanced by early philosophers and theologians were strengthened by medical and scientific discourses of the industrial and post-industrial eras.
The nature versus nurture” debate on the source of sex differences has greatly shaped the scholarship on gender and the body. Feminist thinking has developed in direct relation to dominant gender ideologies that posit gender differences as biologically determined and women’s subordination and men’s dominance as natural. Recent feminist scholarship critiques the terms of the nature versus nurture debate and offers a new paradigm that recognizes the inherent interaction of biological and social systems.
Corresponding with the development of new technologies, the basis of scientific” theories about bodily and behavioral sex differences moved from genitals to gonads to chromosomes to hormones to brains. Fausto-Sterling (2000) challenges the binary construction of sex by arguing that sex is more of a continuum and that the body is changeable over the life course rather than fixed at birth. She theorizes an interactive biosocial model in which internal reproductive structures and external social, historical, and environmental factors are inseparable – interacting over time and circumstance. In a similar vein, Kessler (1998) 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 also argues that acceptance of genital and gender variability will mean the subversion of the equation that genitals equal gender.
The emergence of the second wave women’s movement sparked a wealth of new research on gender and the body that 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. The recent discursive turn” in feminist theory and the development of poststructural challenges to binary constructs and dualistic thinking have encouraged new theorizing that views bodies as texts which can be read as a statement of gender relations.
The emergent field of feminist disability studies contributes to our understanding of gender and the body by drawing attention to bodies culturally identified as sick, impaired, deformed, or malfunctioning and interrogating normalizing discourses of gendered/sexed bodies. The sociology of sport contributes to our understanding of gender and the body by examining the relationships between the symbolic representations of the body and embodied experiences within the sociohistorical contexts of competitive sports. 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. As the diverse and lengthy history of embodied social protest suggests and the various theoretical frameworks 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.
- Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000) Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. Basic Books, New York.
- Kessler, S. (1998) Lessons for the Intersexed. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
- Wollstonecraft, M. (1988) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In: Rossi, A. (ed.), The Feminist Papers. Northeastern University Press, Boston, MA, pp. 40-85.