How and why has the female body been constituted as a ‘repository for ideas’?


The human body has always sparkled the curiosity of many scholars and philosophers from different branches of knowledge. As a result, it has played an important source for shaping fundamental theoretical beliefs about human existence. However, it wasn’t until the beginning of 20th century when theories about the human body and in particular the female body served as a means to display the subjectivity of historical events, thus the collective memory of whole societies was questioned as distorted. The industrial revolutions happened in the western parts of the world and the two world wars in the 20th century made such theories possible. The turbulent events radically reshaped the gender roles, giving women a chance to become visible on the political agenda and to claim their inherent rights. With the appearance of the feminist movement, women’s issues came to be articulated by women themselves, shedding into pieces “universal” believes and cultural norms that kept women silent centuries in a row. Feminists managed to reveal through the discourse on the female body a whole new universe, which has been historically operating hidden by patriarchal power and consumer habits as a source of submission and gaining control over women. That is why the body is such an important issue. It is not about its physicality but about the symbols and metaphors it embodies. The body can be a symbol of freedom and individuality or can be a nameless object, lacking history. In any case, the body is a ‘medium of culture’ (Bordo, 1989:13). In my essay I would try to outline the major reasons that made feminist theoreticians turn to the body as a proof for men’s domination over women and as a way to control an individual by imposed societal norms. Firstly, I would follow feminist critiques on philosophical implications, which have turned the body/self dichotomy into a means for explaining social organization. I believe that this is important element in revealing the development of relations between the sexes. Secondly, I will try to present the body as a bearer of culture and consumer traditions, which operate on everyday level. The theory of “politics of the body” (Bordo, 2003:16) best exemplifies how women’s everyday routines like beautification or dieting actually sustain society’s norms imposed by culture, thus keeps women obedient to traditional gender roles. Thirdly, I will focus on poststructuralist ideas about division of power and power relations that lay the basis of sexual exploitation. Power plays a crucial role in the reproduction of gender stereotypes, it is often institutionalized and justified on the grounds of biological differences, thus turns women into objects.

The human body is common to us all and our bodies contain our selves. However, throughout the history of philosophy, religion or science, body and self have been seen as two contrasting elements. Such a view implies dichotomy. According to Elizabeth Grosz ‘dichotomous thinking necessarily hierarchises and ranks the two polarized terms so that one becomes the privileged term and the other its suppressed, subordinated and negative counterpart’ (Grosz, 1994:3). The self has always been depicted as superior to the body. The body symbolized rough side of the human nature by its clumsiness, appetite urges, excrements, while the soul manifested the barred spirit, forced to bear and respond to the needs of the body. However, this body-self dichotomy spread to broader interpretations and was employed by thinkers and scholars as a powerful means to explain the material and abstract world. Thus, historically, the material world, the one that the body is placed in, has been associated with imperfect shapes, temporality and asymmetry, while the world of the ideas, as seen in Plato’s philosophy or Christian religious thought, was the one that contained all the ideals and purity that the material world should strive for in order one to be protected from sins and to secure immortality. Such a condition surely gives the mind a central position, while the body is marginalized. And if it weren’t for the attempts of the feminist scholars to question and deconstruct these omnipresent presumptions, this dichotomy would still be a stable basis for patriarchal power. Because by taking closer views on the functions of the body, feminists demonstrated the gendered nature of this dichotomy. Such an achievement gave substance to the theory that ‘the male/female opposition has been closely allied with the mind/body opposition’ (Grosz, 1994:14). And indeed, when we come to think about it, history is layered with numerous examples crossing over social and private spheres, as it was stated above that the body/mind opposition could be a way for explaining personal, cultural and social practices and norms. Thus, the women who have been assigned the traditional roles of mothers and caretakers, “naturally” considered to be unable to make decisions for themselves, be it for their marriage, education or career, their own lives in general, are charged with negative assumptions of being passive and capable only of performing automatic actions. These functions very much remind us of the functions performed by the body – always submissive to the commands of the mind/self. On the other hand, the self is a metaphor for the male actions, men as a source for generating wealth, the ones who control “the body”, the decision-makers. This opposite thinking is at the core of patriarchal organization and presents both sexes as a universal construction. However, the cost for women is greater since they appear to be in a subordinate position. As Susan Bordo points out ‘for if, whatever the specific historical content of the duality, the body is the negative term, and if the woman is the body, then women are that negativity, whatever it may be: distraction from knowledge, seduction away from God, capitulation to sexual desire, violence or aggression, failure of will, even death.’ (Bordo, 2003:6). So, there is certain blame put on women for being the “weaker sex”, the body that poses a threat to the stability of the soul and the rationality of the world. By transgressing the traditional views on the body and the self, feminist scholars shed light not only to body/self opposition as equal to male/female opposition, but they revealed the deeply covered negativism against women, which entails a long history of unbalanced relations between the sexes.

Nowadays, traditional views on femininity and masculinity are still powerful tools in the ways people relate to themselves and to each other. However, the situation seems even more complicated bearing in mind the fact that with the development of the technological and scientific innovations, sex can no longer be implied as ‘an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time’ (Butler, 1993:236). It becomes clear that both sex and gender can be altered. But to what direction? Popular culture and entertainment business as a whole dictate the ideals for femininity and masculinity, which shape our views on what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. These standards apply both to the way we look and to the way we behave as they are reaching to us in every possible moment through advertisements, the Internet or popular music. The wide access to visual representation of bodily images sets an ideal for everyone to follow. In this whole system, the image of the body is essential for making us consume more but also it can be consumed as well, since it is something we can all relate to or strive to improve. More specifically, the focus falls on the female body as it is seemingly considered to be universal source of seduction, a pleasant object to look at, to imitate and finally to consume. Visual culture provides numerous ways to reproduce femininity codes of behavior or as Susan Bordo has explained: ‘We are no longer told what “a lady” is or of what femininity consists. Rather, we learn the rules directly through bodily discourse: through images which tell us what clothes, body shape, facial expression, movements, and behavior is required.’ (Bordo, 1989:17). So, all the images have symbolic meanings, which find their realization in different spheres of life, on everyday level. For women in particular, this is a double burden since at present the cultural pressures operate to the extent, which require them to be successful in both the public and the private spheres, at any price. While in the past femininity and masculinity were two excluding opposites, at present their combination is a way to success. To succeed in the career, a woman must employ macho characteristics including determination, competitiveness, self-control, while at home, she must be softhearted, tender and caring. And most often this price is high, paid with permanent anxiety, unassertiveness and self-reflection over whether is she a good mother or a capable professional. Meanwhile however, there is the question of whether she is looking good that is turned into a permanent preoccupation having in mind all the procedures for beautification, hair dying or removing, dieting. Apart from the fact that these practices are time-consuming, they cause anxieties over the imperfect body, which get carved upon the body, as it is the bearer of the cultural tendencies. But these tendencies are not innocent facts of life, rather they are a way to control people. Women are especially vulnerable because they are the ones who are associated through their bodies, thus their identities are built according to the bodies they have. ‘The body is both the site of their entrapment and the vehicle for expressing and controlling who they are.’ (Davis, 1996:427). That is how culture operates on women’s bodies – by setting them to constantly observe themselves and to measure their achievements and failures with their bodies. According to Michel Foucault, such kinds of pressures are part of what he defines as modern power: ‘there is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorizing to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against himself’ (Foucault 1977:155 quoted in Bordo 1999:253). Women in this sense should not be understood as passive victims of gender bias but rather as also capable of reproducing the kind of subordination described above. So it turns out that female bodies are trapped in a vicious circle with culture acting upon them and the women themselves reproducing the imposed cultural patterns, with every deviation considered a failure.

I believe, however that sexual exploitation and discrimination are the biggest harm that the modern consumer society is causing on women and on their bodies. It is a phenomenon created by capitalist ambitions for making money, hidden again by visual images and traditional gender roles. Women presented like sex objects are a common view to observe on the TV, the Internet, and advertisement industry through pornography or “just” eroticized images. Still, in reality this is just another way to equate women’s bodies to items and commodities for market exchange and the popularity of such images imposes the idea that women’s bodies can be easily accessible. Sex is associated with a thing, while women with objects. Feelings are not valuable since they don’t belong to objects or are aspects of a past epoch. It could be said that this condition is a product of the culture of the so-called civilized society but actually it is much more – a political instrument for reproducing patriarchal organization. It is a mechanism for control and subordination because it turns out that sex is yet another invention of society. Subordination defines the lives of people, often brings fear that dictates their actions. To me the most striking realization of women as sex objects is in the prostitution business, which generates billions of dollars through the female bodies. Men have created prostitution and it is a male-dominated business in which women are only a means for achieving financial independence. As sexed bodies, women are made universal and indistinguishable from one another. Prostitutes are believed to stand at the lowest layers of society, uninvolved in their own lives. Still, there is a demand for them. Men on the other hand are again in the role of the active subjects and are judged by what they do, though I believe that actually the women in prostitution business are the active side since they are the ones that have to accomplish satisfaction in the client. Nevertheless, the stereotypical roles about activity and passivity of women and men are still in progress. They are often institutionalized and tolerated by state powers by introduction of laws, which make the subordination socially acceptable. I believe that this is the case with prostitution where it is legalized. Moreover, women are in the unfavorable position of being treated just as bodies, therefore as others. ‘In “otherness” time is made to stand still for the oppressed. By representing the oppressed as biologically and culturally different, by reducing them by means of their difference to “others”, patriarchal power dismembers women from their history.’ (Barry, 1995:24). And indeed, history depicts only events performed by active subjects; such subjects write the history itself. Most often history is political, it is about seizing control and women have traditionally been excluded from politics. By treating women as passive bodies, they are considered to be worthless for description; they are deprived of their human characteristics and are not being credited for their contribution for the development of society. Consequently, sexual discrimination blocks the progress of women and limits their opportunities for making achievements and being recognized as equal members of the society.

In conclusion, our interpretations of the body extend beyond the material borders of the body itself. It fact, the different examples that are demonstrated in this essay show how and why the body is not a fixed concept but a constantly changing one. In this context, the female body is ‘repository for ideas’ because it allows for multiple readings. It is transformed into a social phenomenon but at the same time it negotiates women’s identity. And for women it is one of the most precious things since their bodies are the bearers of many ideological constructions that define their individuality and gives them meanings in life both positive and negative. The female body is storage for culture’s influence that is experienced on most intimate levels. This means that external and internal factors operate upon the body. It is a never-ending quest for what could be incorporated more. The driving wheels of this quest, however, are the powers exercised upon the body. They are practiced from the owner of the body and spread over societies, cultures and institutions; they spread also over time and space. Everyone wants to get their share from the body, as it is a source for wealth, pleasure or suffering. This means that the abstract characteristics of the body are much more than its physical ones, making it a site for interest for many.

Barry, K. (1995) ‘The Prostitution of Sexuality: The Global Exploitation of Women’, New York University Press
Bordo, S. (2003) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. Barkeley: University of California Press
Bordo, S. (1989) ‘The Body and the Reproduction of femininity: A Feminist Appropriation of Foucault’, in A. M. Jaggar and S. R. Bordo (eds) Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Butler, J (1993) ‘Bodies that matter’ in J. Price and M. Shildrick (eds) Feminist Theory and the body (1999)
Davis, K. (1996) ‘From Objectified body to Embodied Subject’, in S. Jackson and S. Scott (eds) Gender a sociological reader 2002, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group
Grosz, E. (1994) ‘Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Wolf, N (1991) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are used against Women, New York: Morrow.

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