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Definition and Context
What marks a body as “different”? How do bodily differences shape perception and management of our bodies, creating and enforcing stigmas? In order to more fully understand what bodily difference means, we need to explore race, disability, and age as well as other markers of bodily difference including class, gender, and sexuality through a socio-cultural lens rather than only a biological/scientific one.
Early 20th century researchers Franz Boas, a cultural anthropologist, Max Weber, a sociologist, and W.E.B. Dubois, a sociologist and activist, claimed that race was a social, not biological, construct. Furthering this research, late 20th century sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue in their seminal book Racial Formation in the United States that
once we understand that race overflows the boundaries of skin color, super-exploitation, social stratification, discrimination and prejudice, cultural domination and cultural resistance, state policy (or of any other particular social relationship we list), once we recognize the racial dimension present to some degree in every identity, institution and social practice in the United States—once we have done this, it becomes possible to speak of racial formation. This recognition is hard-won; there is a continuous temptation to think of race as an essence, as something fixed, concrete and objective, as (for example) one of the categories just enumerated. And there is also an opposite temptation: to see it as a mere illusion, which an ideal social order would eliminate. In our view it is crucial to break with these habits of thought. The effort must be made to understand race as an unstable and ‘decentered’ complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle (13).
Some bodies are born with hereditary physical impairment and some acquired through accidents, infections or diseases. Some impairment occurs naturally, through the aging process. “While impairment refers to some loss of physiological or anatomical capacity, the term disability registers the repercussions of impairment and the difficulties a person may have engaging with the physical and built environment” (Howson 29). We can examine the range of effects various disabilities present and the myriad ways people have, through activism and creativity, contended with it, from classical musicians such as Beethoven to contemporary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. AXIS Dance Company is an especially dynamic example example of physically integrated dance.
What does it mean to grow older? How do our bodies change? How are older bodies perceived and treated? Emmanuelle Tulle-Winton, a sociologist specializing in old age, posits that “Ageing and, in particular, old age is similarly associated with changes and alternations in the shape, appearance and function of the body that may cause pain or discomfort and contribute to the social devaluation of ageing and old people” (Howson 189). As bodies grow older, they are “…defined in terms of productivity, the absence of which leads to social and economic marginalization” (Howson 190). Media unfortunately reinforce this perspective. “Hollywood has been especially unfriendly toward older people, either portraying them as comic foils or ignoring them completely. This attitude has reinforced cultural stereotypes related to aging and has lowered older peoples’ sense of self-worth” (Samuel 12).
Click on the linked sources to check out examples of bodily difference in terms of class, gender, and sexuality.
Sources and Further Reading
Howson, Alexandra. The Body in Question: An Introduction. 2nd Edition. Polity Press, 2013.
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant, Eds. Racial Formation in the United States. 2nd Edition. NY: Routledge, 1994.
Samuel, Lawrence R. Aging in America: A Cultural History. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.
Kelly Thomas, MFA
Associate Professor, Core Division