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Gender and the Body – How did we get here?

June 24th, 2010 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

One of my old professors was fond of saying that in his class we take the first several weeks to chuck a whole bunch of balls in the air and we then spend the rest of the semester learning to juggle them. This is an attempt at juggling. I’m throwing 20 different ideas in the air and am desperately hoping to catch two or three. So you’re warned in advance if this feels a bit ambitious/excessive. Also, cross posted at Notes from a Small Place.

Last week I referenced Foucault’s argument in the opening chapter of Discipline and Punish in which he says that the western mind has shifted in recent centuries away from an emphasis on the physical body and toward the question of ideals, privileging what Foucault terms “the abstract conscious” over the much more physical human body.

One point that especially interests me in all of this is how this privileging of the abstract conscious over the body manifests itself in the way we view gender and body image. Here’s my intuition: In the pre-modern mind the body and the senses played a radically different role than they do the modern. But it’s not simply an issue of body and soul, but of physical and abstract.

There’s a larger cultural trend that is worth discussing and it manifests itself in many ways. The underlying premise of both industrialization and modernity is that something other than nature ought to govern and limit the capabilities of human beings. Indeed, these twin projects would argue that the only legitimate limitations that can be imposed onto humanity are those of our imagination and our technology. I am becoming more convinced that when moderns speak of people being “free” this is the sense in which they mean it – free from the natural limitations of place and time. The net result of this shift then is a movement away from physical, tangible realities and toward abstraction. Things like the physical land and physical body are uninteresting to moderns – except to the extent that they must be considered in the exercising of the human imagination or the implementation of technology. So we care about the slope of the land for how it determines the kind of road we can build, but that’s it.

The shift is manifested in our justice system as Foucault documents above. But it’s also manifested in our relationship to the land. We now see the physical land as merely incidental, one more thing to conquer and control. Rather than living with the land, we now live on it. Consider this excerpt from Christopher Benson writing at Mere Orthodoxy:

“Herein lies a contrast between the modern project to mark on the land, where man tries to humble the wild, and what we might envision as a postmodern project to be marked by the land, where the wild humbles man. Is it even possible, I wonder, for the wild to humble us when we’re no longer residents of the wild, when the magic of our technologies and the potency of our knowledge make us feel closer to God than the beasts? Is the fact of the land a fact anymore? If there’s any hope to care for the land rather than merely conquer it, then we must undergo “its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.” In short, we must undergo a reverse homesteading, in which the land does not leave us alone.”

I’m even inclined to say that you can see this reflected in our economic model, though my ignorance of economics gives me some pause before doing so, but consider the way we value money: In the past, we based our money’s value on an inescapably physical, tangible standard: gold. Now we base it on the abstract authority of the nation backing it up. (I’m not arguing that all of these shifts are innately bad, I’m just pointing out the many ways the shift is manifested.)

In any event, I think the larger point holds: In the last 200 years with a rise in technology and shift in cultural values we’ve seen a movement away from the brass tacks of matter and toward the more conceptual realm of ideals. So what does it have to do with our physical bodies? I’m still sorting through how to answer it, but here are some intuitions:

Firstly, though we have tried to make physical things peripheral in our thinking about the world, we can’t avoid thinking about them at some level simply because we live in a physical world and our ability to live well in it depends so much upon physical, tangible conditions. In other words, the ideal can be divorced from on-the-ground realities, but human beings cannot. Because abstraction is privileged over the body, our first thoughts about our own bodies are grounded in abstractions rather than simple observation of our own bodies. So for a young woman thinking about her body, the place her thought process is likely to begin is with whatever ideal of feminine beauty she’s been given in her formative years. She will then move from that abstraction to judging her own body and that of her peers by the standard already given. And in our culture’s case, it doesn’t matter that her body might be perfectly healthy because the ideal is not concerned with something as tangible as bodily health. The ideal is only concerned with abstraction. And the makers of the ideal are, more often than not, advertisers who are only concerned with making a buck.

Second, because our primary concerns are no longer with practical realities but abstract ideals, the standards we create may be of little practical use or may even be physically dangerous. Consider Barbies, for example. The primary concern with a Barbie doll is not that her body would be such that she’s able to do useful work (whatever that work may be) or even that her body would be physically healthy. The only concern is that the doll would reflect and encourage a carefully-defined and completely-unattainable standard of beauty created by advertisers who need to peddle a product. (Sidenote: This is where I insert a plug for Mad Men and tell you to start watching it because it’s one of the best shows on television and has a lot to say about the issues we’re discussing here.)

At this point we need to revisit Bonhoeffer’s idea of a wish-dream: Ideals, like the Barbie figure, are wish-dreams. And if we don’t learn to accept that blessed disillusionment we spoke of earlier, we continue to pursue our wish-dream no matter the consequences. The advertisers are happy to keep up this arrangement – there’s plenty of other ways they can make the feminine ideal unattainable. And, of course, the more unattainable the ideal, the more enticing that ideal is as a wish-dream.

Those are just two thoughts of how Foucault’s idea of the abstract conscious/soul being privileged over the body might influence our understanding of gender and sexuality. What are your thoughts? Do you see this shift to valuing the abstract over the physical? If you do, how does that influence our thinking about gender and the body?

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).