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The Thin Red Line: Social Power & the Open Body
(Released March 2000)

  by Dan Edelman  


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Review Article

The 1999 murder of Philip Bondy arouses revulsion not for the fact that he was killed by an unlicensed ex-doctor with a history of botching underground surgeries, but rather because the victim was an amputation fetishist. Testimony in the case contended that apotemnophilia sufferers claim an alien aspect to their body and desire to rid themselves of the offending limb, usually a leg. "It's about becoming whole," Bondy's friend Gregg Furth says, "not becoming disabled. You have this foreign body, and you want to get rid of it."1 By the same token, in interviews, women reported that they sought cosmetic surgery because "they did not feel at home in their bodies."2 When in both cases the language used implies a sense of Otherness with respect to one's body, wherein lies the difference in the decision to remove a "foreign" limb versus tucking the tummy or lifting the face of a body that is not a "home"?

A fine but sturdy line separates the shocking from the mundane, and this line, which encircles and ensorcells the human body, is trod by society and self in a dance of norms and resistance. With the body as ballroom, this dance exists in various forms and is stepped to a tune of sociocultural power played in standard and alternative values. This dance is more wrangle than reel, and the body is clearly a site of opposition.

These ideas of norms and resistance are examined through the phenomena of genital mutilation, eating disorders, bodybuilding/shaping, cosmetic surgery, transsexuality, and body art. Discussion traces how social critique often reveals the alignment of male and larger social interests (ie, norms and values), exposing the patriarchal order and use of the female body as an object of sociocultural power struggles.

Circumcision/Genital Mutilation

Circumcision is a hotly debated issue around the world, with human rights groups actively pursuing its abolition among not only females, but males as well. The controversy over this practice is rife with diverse power plays that do not always directly involve the individuals whose bodies are in question, ie, infants and children.

Indication of the body as a nexus of such conflict is seen in male British-Kikuyu competition to control female genital circumcision in 1920s colonial Kenya,3 a ritual that entailed complex landholding and bridewealth processes wherein women were objectified in patriarchal exchanges. In a less direct, symbolic fashion, male circumcision, as practiced among the Gisu of Uganda, makes men of boys, but also transforms Gisu girls in a vicarious and typically patriarchal fashion: a younger sister accompanying the male throughout the arduous ritual becomes his symbolic wife whose bridewealth will be used to fetch the boy a true wife4

Conformity is a powerful social force that perpetuates circumcision of both males and females5 Women in Cote d'Ivoire are considered unmarriageable if uncircumcised, while in Kenya, circumcision of the sister is prerequisite for a man's initiation into the warrior class. 6 Objectification of women is integral in cultures where female circumcision allows men to control female sexuality for economic (eg, bridewealth) and other (eg, paternity assurance) reasons.

In classical rabbinic Judaism, male circumcision is an important ritual of cultural identity, clearly demarcating Jews from Gentiles and representing the covenant between God and the people of Israel. That the Jewish ritual is performed only on males suggests the inferiority and Otherness of women, the essential inadequacy of their Jewishness. 7 The implications of this irony delineate the unilateral nature of a power structure that can victimize women by invading or not invading their bodies.

Male circumcision emerged masked as a religious ritual before donning the modernized and mainstream shroud of medicalization, stressing hygiene and health considerations. But similar medicalizing discourses are now at work resisting the social (Western) values underpinning circumcision, demonstrating the power of social institutions (here, the Western medical sphere).

Eating Disorders

Social influence is a prevalent culprit behind eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia in Western society. Susan Bordo describes three axes of continuity that converge in anorexia: (1) The dualist axis centers around experiencing the body as alien, confining and limiting, the enemy, and a threat to control. (2) The control axis allows subjugation of out-of-control hunger. (3) The gender/power axis interprets the body as "too much" and creates anorexia in subconscious protest against femininity's restrictions. 8

The drive for thinness derives from deeply embedded cultural standards that require women to be decorative9 and exemplify popular notions of femininity. 10 One popular icon is the supermodel: the flawless, fat-free, white beauty. Comparison to such male- and media-spurred cultural ideals leads to low self-esteem and self-disgust in the many women smitten with the message that they are abnormal.

The power of cultural stereotypes of white beauty is manifest in eating disorders that havoc the bodies of women of color, a minority group saddled with the crypto-racist misconception of being somehow immune to such conditions.11 Black women are burdened with two paradoxical stereotypes: the assertive if nonthreatening, sexless, fat mammy and the sexually promiscuous, aggressive, and amoral female.12 African American women may disembody themselves in an attempt to escape the shadow of these stereotypes, pursuing thinness to elude the mammy image and denying hunger to stifle their own sexual urges that seem to justify the social stamp of wantonness.13


Aerobics, though not pathologized as are anorexia and bulimia, shares similarities with those disorders, in that the body is represented as a barrier to the achievement of beauty ideals. Further, exercise enables control over the body's tendency to expand and fosters a disgust with its excesses (ie, fat) that requires aerobics to discipline the uncontrollable body.14

Discipline is a keystone to the patriarchal sport of professional bodybuilding, implying control over bodies in a manner suggesting a separation of self and corpus. The focus of this control is typically found in body weight. "Much as an anorectic talks about feeling a sense of power because she can control her body through weight loss, some bodybuilders are obsessed with their weight, and to them power means ability to control their bodies and their appetites."15 Thus, female bodybuilding can be likened to eating disorders as both are subject to normalizing regimes of self-management.

The masculinity of social norms remains evident in the world of female bodybuilding, where male power is writ large in male gatekeeping dominance of the sport. Historically, men have benefited from an uneven power balance that underpins the negotiation process, which in turn spurs the formulation and maintenance of gender definitions and, by extension, gender inequality. Thus, women who participate in such masculine arenas as bodybuilding find themselves dueling with and against notions of femininity. As they add "rip" and muscle mass, they physically transgress the bounds of "appropriate" femininity. They then contend with reactions designed, if not actually to control them on an individual basis, then to construct pilings to bolster social norms by labeling these women as deviant, eg, unattractive, butch, dyke, masculine, aggressive, or recasting them to fit hegemonic definitions of femininity. 16 For a male bodybuilder, "monster" is a compliment; for his female counterpart, monster means unfeminine, ugly, deficient, out of control, too much.17 This extremist discourse persistently marginalizes women who encroach on traditionally male spheres while simultaneously (via identical language) encouraging male dominance.

In another view, bodybuilding may represent a means through which males adjust to changes in Western society, from modernity to postmodernity. Alan Klein18 suggests that bodybuilding is a means by which insecure males, deprived of traditional privileges in this emergent postindustrial order, compensate for a sense of powerlessness by embodying the physicality of hegemonic masculinity, with the muscular body equating to the culturally idealized masculine/powerful/self-assured body.

Cosmetic Surgery

Michel Foucault19 considers the body the inscribed surface of events and, moreover, alterable, a cultural construction scored with gender, social behavior, and identity. 20 In this view, cosmetic surgery can be construed as "the literal and explicit enactment of this process of inscription."21

Though plastic surgery is not an exclusively female domain, the critical lens has remained on women's issues. At its crux, the debate hinges on cosmetic surgery as oppression or empowerment. Kathy Davis22 discusses inherent contradictions in women's self-conscious decisions to undergo cosmetic surgery as both asserting agency and objectifying their bodies. The paradox is evident in the affirmative act of reconstructing the body so as to reclaim the "real" self despite private concerns about the risks and suffering entailed. In fact, the women Davis interviewed rejected the idea that they had been normalized or ideologically manipulated and considered themselves agents in the remaking of their bodies and thus their lives; ie, cosmetic surgery gave them control of circumstances hitherto uncontrollable.

Cosmetic surgery's medicalization of the female body, via a discourse of correction, prevention, and necessity, is in a sense a declaration of war, with choice as weapon, a battleground whereon the "willing" female self chooses to conform to socially acceptable, mass-media-driven standards of beauty; resists the once deviant procedure at the risk of stigmatization as aberrant; or, as in the controversial self-portraits of French performance artist Orlan, subverts the institution by literally and publicly deconstructing her body to destabilize cultural norms of beauty and suffering for it. "For Orlan, plastic surgery is a path towards self-determinationa way for women to regain control over their bodies."23


Transsexuality is often problematized in terms of identity. The sex role identity of transsexuals can be considered an issue of social power: society pigeonholes transsexuals by forcing them to fit the male-female gender binary; alternatively, transsexuals foster an individualized, resistive self-identity that pursues transcendence of the traditional sex dichotomy.24

Patricia Gagne and Richard Tewksbury draw on 1994/95 interviews with 65 masculine-to-feminine transgendered individuals of varying degree (eg, pre/postoperative and cross-dressers) to illustrate the power of the gender binary system in terms of these people's resistance and conformity to it.25 These individuals acknowledged a transgendered identity incongruent to their sex at birth. Many felt compelled to hide their transgendered identities behind facades of normative masculinity while coming to grips with their transgenderism and then pursuing a stereotypical feminine persona after acceptance of it (eg, as cross-dressing).

In effect, social pressures foster a link between identity and body such that these men faced social erasure if they resisted traditional masculinity and pursued a feminine self-concept; ironically, those who challenged the norms often reproduced the gender binary by transitioning from social manhood to complete social womanhood. This does not preclude a third categorya marginalized transgendered identity (women who are/were men) that, while challenging the binary via small acts of everyday resistance, also exists within it and thus cannot do more than destabilize the norms.

Body Art/Play

If, in the Foucauldian sense, the body is a site of sociocultural inscription, where a sort of hegemony of norms gains purchase, it follows that such inscription can be rewritten, fostering resistance to the establishment of such norms, eg, in terms of reversing body alienation imbued by sexual or physical abuse or combating a sense of ugliness imposed by the social imperatives of women's beauty.26 Certain subcultures employ the tattoo needle and the septum barbell for this rewrite.

The connection between subcultural practices and resistance can be understood in terms of Victor Turner's27 notion of liminality, which dovetails with Mikhail Bakhtin's28 notion of the grotesque. Both are underpinned by the action of transgression; ie, the liminal stage of a rite of passage is a transition point between two states, and Bakhtinian grotesqueness and its "openness" (directly contradicting the closed nature of the modern mainstream body, eg, the phenomenon of feminine hygiene, ie, plugging the flow of natural bleeding) allows the body to transgress claims (read norms) on the body.

From a feminist postmodern and deconstructionist perspective, body modification, or self-mutilation, makes the body grotesque by opening it up, thrusting it into a liminal state to generate a marginal identity that negates normative identity categories and subverts social regulation.29 Rob Shields argues that marginality empowers and allows critique (opposition) by exposing the relativity of universalizing mainstream (center) values, and liminality is freedom from everyday normative regimes and performance codes.30

The act of cutting is considered empowering not so much for the scar that results, but for the very experience of being cut, of submitting to an act of violence to the flesh in a loving context and on one's own terms.31 Cutting becomes a reclamation of the body, and on a broader level, may be seen as a response "to the appropriation of women's bodies as objects of other people's desire by advertising media and the fashion industry."32 (An interesting discursive parallel exists between this form of body modification and that of bodybuilding, which generally lauds its participants for being "cut" or "ripped.")

Pursuit of empowerment is demonstrated in an empirical study of tattooing and body piercing practices among 766 college students in the US and Australia, which revealed that 296 (53%) who got tattoos and 189 (48%) who got body piercings did so as a means of self-expression.33 Further, Dan Brouwer34 views the decision by some HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) seropositive people to tattoo themselves with a variety of HIV-related (eg, "silence=death") and homosexual (eg, pink triangle) symbols as self-stigmatization that is a form of communicative/performative resistance to conservative norms, although such visibility politics also delivers a positive public health message.

In a study of prison inmates, B.V. Olguin employs a poststructuralist perspective on dialectics to argue that Chicano tattoos are marks of distinction that, on the one hand, signify "Hispanic male suspect-convict" and, on the other, emphasize a dialectics of difference, particularly salient in terms of organized resistance to and transgression and transformation of the kind of norms-reinforcing containment sought by the "men's penitentiary emasculation drama."35

In another example, body adornment under the rubric of "modern primitivism" is construed as resistance because it employs the notion of primitive in self-exploration in such a way that self threatens the cultural order, ie, society.36 The Modern Primitives movement, a subculture that emerged in 1970s California, resists modernity by heeding primal urges, as manifested in body modification (what self-proclaimed founder Fakir Musafar calls "Body Play"). Body Play has a decidedly sadomasochistic quality that Modern Primitives speak of in terms more spiritual than sexual. However, Christian Kleese37 suggests that the movement's cooptation of so-called authentically primitive practices is not only essentialist, but also a postcolonial identity strategy unwittingly allied with Western modernity, which reproduces inherently repressive gender stereotypes on racialized people and their sexuality.


Body modification sheds light on certain social dynamics. People constantly strive for subjectivity, ie, self-identity, while society works at reproducing itself. The body is a site for such pursuits, and it becomes apparent that the body is an objective arena; an object acted upon by self and Other, individual and society.

Susan Bordo38 contends that such subversion or neutralization of the radical messages of clitoral and penile piercings, breast carving, branding, and female muscularity and massiveness, must have a finitude. There cannot be a permanent dispersal of normative categories; self and Other, marginal and normal, must coexist. Thus, reappropriation practices designed to destabilize normative categories and identities (eg, the use of typically pejorative "queer" by homosexuals and "niggah" by African Americans) are constantly usurped by society. Consumerization and commodification of norm resistance can be seen in bodybuilding/shaping or cosmetic surgery, and tattooing.

The popular image of the tattooee as young, male and working class is now increasingly outdated as more and more men and women, of various age-groups and socio-economic backgrounds, choose to enter the tattoo studio. Piercing too, though once associated with particular or subcultural groups, is now popular with an increasingly heterogeneous range of enthusiasts. 39

Modernity has distilled the power of body marks (eg, tattoos) once embedded in traditional social processes of sexual and economic production. Michel Maffesoli's40 notion of neotribalism suggests that tattoos and piercings are no longer functional (in a McLuhanian41 sense, thick/hot, ie, obligatory), but are social constructions of traditional sociability patterns in the modern world, operating in a "field of [Nietzschean] Dionysian desire and consumer pleasure." 42 Because consumerism lacks an authentic mythology or theology, tattoos have no cosmic foundation, hence, no meaning, and, thus, often merely simulate the primitive. This postmodern neotribalism is (thin/cool) voluntary and indicative of an impermanence that in turn implies multiple possible loyalties and no connection to any collective memory in a provisional society.

In opposition to Modern Primitivism and neotribalism, the social philosophy transhumanism advocates human-machine interface and, finally, transcendence of the human body. Transhumanism combines physical fitness with biotechnology and nanotechnology in pursuit of a future utopian lifestyle free of the temporal and corporeal ravages of humanity. This is a philosophy of cyborgs and artificial intelligence, seeking the ragged edges of mortality in defiance of death. Leaving the human body behind to live forever in some other, perhaps computerized virtual form, is the ultimate body modification, and the most fantastic cry in support of the self-body duality. However, it might be argued that some of the physical fitness discourse surrounding transhumanism reinforces beauty/perfection ideals, suggesting, perhaps, that social norms might be carried on ad infinitum, hard coded and thus perpetuated in some cyborg intelligence.

Willful body modification implies empowerment and resistance to the alienating domination of the Other, be it society or its parts (eg, abusive partner). In response, society often exercises its normalizing force via its institutions. The medicalization of body modification practices, such as, transsexuality is a prime example of this, with gender sexology "policing the norms of gender and the identities of transgenders."43 In the 1970s and 1980s, gender sexology and psychiatry sought to treat and cure transgenders, providing a "'technological fix' or 'normalisation' process according to a heterosexual, two gender hierarchy."44

Perhaps more pervasive in buttressing social norms than the scientific community are the mass media, particularly the news media. From a social constructionist perspective, the news media problematize social events or phenomena, utilizing dominant or authoritative discourses in the public sphere in a frame built, as Aogan Mulcahy45 argues, by grounding such phenomena in "valid and culturally accepted claims." Victoria Pitts's content analysis of 35 US and UK articles on body modification revealed that body modification was relatively easy to frame as a mental health problem centered on self-mutilation.46

These discursive practices foster reproduction of normative expectations for physical appearances by invalidating the body modification subculture; in effect, society has at its disposal a variety of methods to exercise control at the level of the individual body. By rendering body modification pathological, it is thrust back into a realm easily understood by the general public, branding as idiosyncratic or personal and thus depoliticized any marginal discourses (or acts).

In her queer theory, Judith Butler employs the notion of performativity: sex/gender is an act and therefore mutable, yet only within a limited range of possibility, for performativity "is always a reiteration of norms or a set of norms [and] the subject who resists such norms is itself enabled, if not produced, by such norms." 47 And yet these norms, wrought in part by certain discursive practices, marginalize the Other (the radical, the resistant) and, paradoxically, demarcateie, defineit. Although social norms are omnipresent and necessary for the sub- and counter-cultural subject to have meaning (there can be no dark without light), the very fact of this subject's demarcation (existence) implies its ability to rearticulate the dominant symbolic hegemony contouring society.

By keeping marginal certain acts, does not society then reproduce the self-Other dichotomy that lies at the heart of most social fragmentations (eg, racism, nationalism)? And yet, do not subcultures, by making visible (politically or otherwise) their discourse and actions, invite cooptation by the mainstream, thus rendering their resistance impotent? The implication is a perpetual passive and active power play, wherein, ultimately, society succeeds in reproducing itself in a cycle of resistance and reappropriation. Cooptation of the marginal necessarily colors sociocultural values, fostering shifts in worldview. However, any resultant sociocultural change is on society's terms, because the radical is always rendered against the normal. Until individual and subcultural perspectives can transcend those parameters, resistance to institutions such as circumcision will fail, eating disorders will thrive, cosmetic surgery and bodybuilding as purely individual undertakings will remain spurious, and the politics of sex and body play will persist in its loud, empty fashion; that is to say, such subcultures will persevere but forever subordinately.

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