In an attempt to counter the male dominated body prejudice Elizabeth Blackwell began a discourse on using a one-body image, this time female, to analyse and understand the physiology of the body. Blackwell, was one of the founding feminists, an abolitionist and the first female to become a doctor in the United States. As a doctor she may most assuredly also be viewed as a feminist physiologist and one of the first feminist sociologist and began to analyse the sociology of the body as it relates to the cultural and individual perception of women in the early twentieth century.
The tendency to use the male form as the baseline for anatomical or physiological comparison has more to do with the social meanings attached to the sexed body and to the gender politics of anatomy than with the physical structures involved. In many respects, the changes in technologies of and for the body in the late twentieth century make Blackwell's adaptation of the one-sex model of the body almost preferable for a feminist sociology of the body. (Krug 1996:71-72)
Blackwell was influenced by a liberal humanist approach and attempted to emphasise essential equality between the genders. She based her interpretation of the body upon the actual physiological facts about the body rather than the myths and cultural prejudices usually associate with it by society. Blackwell spearheaded this alternative approach and was certainly one of the founding mothers in the early stage of the science of the sociology of the body.
This '...makes her work stand out even among contemporary discussions of gender and sexuality -- basing her explorations on a female, rather than a male, model of the body. (Krug 1996:71)
However, even the well part the twentieth and well into the twenty-first century the feminist sociologists are up against some pretty difficult and well-imbedded concepts of body sociology. This came to light in the event of the tragic death of Ruth Handler on 29 April 2002. Perhaps an unfamiliar name to some, she was the creator of Barbie, who was for years and still possibly is the impossible dream of the female form. If expanded to human size her proportions were certainly inspiring, but by nature's standards, unrealistic. London's Daily Telegraph put the figure at the following proportions of 39-18-33. Making it about a 1 in 100,000 chance of getting that top-heavy hourglass shape from the grace of nature alone. And even then there was no counting on how long it would last. (Solomon 2002: 7)
Styles change. And for the past thirty or so years new waves of feminism have effectively critiqued a lot of such destructive role-modelling. We may prefer to think that Barbie-like absurdities have been left behind by oh-so-sophisticated twenty-first-century media sensibilities. But to thumb through the Cosmopolitan now on the racks is to visit a matrix of "content" and advertising that incessantly inflames -- and cashes in on-obsessions with seeking to measure up to media-driven images. (Solomon 2002; 7)
While at first perhaps unreachable, the Barbie-ized body image that says more about the influence that the male sociological perspective of women has on society than any other single symbol. This is still a driving force in the female psyche today, 'what will he think of me?.' With the dawn of more astoundingly incredible techniques of the plastic surgeon, the ideal Barbie shape can not only be reached, but also even surpassed to ghastly proportions. Included in this ideology is perhaps one of the more pervasive themes in Women's magazines on the stands today. That, 'women's bodies are a problem which must be managed within strict but ever changing norms of femininity. Women, in these magazines, have, almost without exception, been situated within the domestic sphere or in close proximity to it.' (Hyde 2000:157) the view that the female body is a problem to be resolved is also one of the ingrained idioms that feminist sociologist are attempting to change the sociological image of the body today.
However, we must remember that the male oriented role of body sociology has been dominant for centuries and that it is only within the last several hundred years that feminism and women's rights have evolved and taken a stronger foothold. There have been several major contributions in the reshaping by feminist sociologists regarding the sociology of the body. The term sexual harassment was unknown before the 1970's. Before that time the sociology aspect or concept of a woman's body was that it was permissible to touch and to talk about by males in any number of ways. Furthermore, prior to this period in time the laws for rape were certainly almost always biased on the side of the male rapist rather than the female victim. The woman's body was quite often 'blamed' for the man's desire to commit the crime. From a feminist sociologist's perspective we now know that it has very little to do with the nature of a woman's body or any other body for that matter. It has more to do with power and control and anger on the part of the attacker and an imbedded inferiority complex that causes him to sticker out at a sociologically constructed weaker target. Weaker in the aspect that he would be able to get away with it because he and society's view is that a woman's body is perhaps just not as important. This same reasoning has also been true in matters of domestic violence, scenes that just a few years ago may have been overlooked by the justice system are now without question considered a crime. Men can no longer abuse a woman and get away with it. (Bennetts, Leslie, Gerard, Emily, and Liebman 2008; 103) These change ahve everything to do with the raising consciousness regarding the sociology of the body and the changing context for women in culture and society.
Yet this heightened awareness comes with psychological consequences:
Bodily regulation and physical self-consciousness are hallmarks of both transgendered and female experience in this culture. We are taught to develop heightened awareness and invest our bodies with great meaning. Even small bodily changes feel weighted with implications. When I put on a few extra pounds, it invariably shows in fuller breasts, hips, and thighs, thus undermining my gender presentation and basically my sense of self. This can feel very immobilising and distressing. (Bullington 2004: 36)
While the Sociology of the Body is a relatively new term, it effect is centuries old. What many have come to simply believe as true as regards the cultural implications of bodily functions and forms are simply constructs of the culture and not physiological facts. Feminist Sociologist have played perhaps the most instrumental role in this lightning of the veil of prejudice in regards to the social perception and culturally placed roles of gender-based body images. Without this view from the 'other side' so to speak, we would still think that the only place for a woman would be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. As one can see that even this stereotyped and well-worn adage is body centric and an excellent example of the how Sociology of the Body can influence our thoughts and feelings.
List of References
Armstrong, Karen.1996. 'A God for both sexes.' Economist 341: 65-70.
Bennetts, Leslie, Gerard, Emily, and Liebman, Jeremy. 2008. 'The f-word.' Cosmo Girl, 10: 102-105.
Bullington, Sam. 2004. 'Transgendered Feminist Body Issues.' Off Our Backs 34: 34-36.
Edwards, Susan S.M. 1993. "Chapter 6 Selling the Body, Keeping the Soul: Sexuality, Power, the Theories and Realities of Prostitution." pp. 89-null979104 in Body Matters: Essays on the Sociology of the Body, edited by Scott, Sue and David Morgan. London: Falmer Press.
Hyde, Pamela. 2000. "Managing Bodies-Managing Relationships: The Popular Media and the Social Construction of Women's Bodies and Social Roles from the 1930s to the 1950s." Journal of Sociology 36:157.
Kaveny, Cathleen.2008. 'The 'New' Feminism?' Commonweathl 135: 8.
Krug, Kate. 1996. "Women Ovulate, Men Spermate: Elizabeth Blackwell as a Feminist Physiologist." Journal of the History of Sexuality 7:51-72.
Morgan, DH J., and Sue Scott. 1993. "Chapter 1 Bodies in a Social Landscape." pp. 1-21 in Body Matters: Essays on the Sociology of the Body, edited…