Body studies in Sociology and Women’s Studies can be really complex, as both have many intersections. They might not be taken seriously, due to the many scenarios where the body can be overlooked and not held in high regard. The pushback would be women have more to worry about besides their bodies, and that there are other issues that “we should try to overcome;” however, it is actually the complete opposite. I am interested in the sociology of minority groups. Identifying with a marginalized group of people has impacted me, and often minorities suffer body shaming.
Bodies tend to be an unchartered territory in my discipline. For example: Sarah Baartan. Her body was put on exhibit as a “freak show attraction” in Europe around the 19th century. Baartman was known as “Hottentot Venus”—”Hottentot” was then an offensive term. Baartan died at the tender age of 26. No one knows the exact cause of her death, but the body shaming probably had a lot to do with her untimely death. Presumably after her death, people did not care about the rights of African Americans let alone a women of color. Her body was their “property.” Her body parts were dissected, and her genitals were pickled. There was even a plaster cast made of her genitalia put on display in the Museum of Man until 1974.
I also think of the slave mentality as one of the reasons body shaming is an issue for people of color. There’s this idea of what is “beautiful” or accepted in society, and then there is reality. Historically those examples and images have not been in favor for people of color. Like Baartan, many women of color are shapely and have a similar physique, or are of a darker shade of skin. Darker skinned bodies are viewed as “bad” or “ugly” in society. Even in children books and movies, bigger and darker folks are “evil.” A great example of this is Ursala in The little Mermaid; she was a thicker character and had darker purple skin with a black dress.
If you look at bodies from both Women’s Studies and Sociology viewpoints, they can be seen as a representation of a culture. For example: ones “head” is used as a metaphor of someone in charge or in control especially in Christianity. The term “head and not the tail” is used often to express the “order” of a household.
In class we talked about bodylore, along with what the different body parts represent. Often times left handedness can represent an “exotic” lifestyle, and body modifications, such as tattoos, can be looked at as empowering physically and culturally. Research shows representations of the body are the result of power, particularly between sexes. Much of historical research involves dominant discourses of gender. There are studies that discuss the body being used in politics. (i.e. Hillary Clinton and her suits), and sociologists have studied how the body can flow into the political scene, representing the power hierarchy being exercised over our bodies.
“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”— Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth.
This quote supports the idea that body studies should be researched in my discipline because of the lasting effects on women still today.
BBCnews, (2002) “Hottentott Venus goes home”
Turner, B. S. (1984) The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory. Blackwell, Oxford.
Tanesha Blake is a student in WMST 494, “Gender, Fashion, and the Body.”