The body is a collection, put simply. Bones, brain, liver, blood, hair, skin, eyes. We are bodies of work in progress as our brains develop and our cells divide and our taste changes over time; each one of us an individual collection of movement and growth. The dictionary definition ends far before this, leaving it at “the physical structure of a person or an animal”. I find this anatomical definition completely insufficient, unable to account for not only how complicated each body is, but also the emotional and cultural value of bodies. To be here and live as free as I do in my body today required not only the splitting of cells but also a cultural revolution. In order to fully understand what a body is, it is essential to study the historical context surrounding the way we have treated and talked about bodies as a society.
Our perception of our bodies is far from simply physical. Due to standards of society, religion, and culture, bodies carry heavy social value. One of the most strikingly obvious examples is race. White Americans and Europeans alike built a hierarchy based on appearance for the sole purpose of subjugating other races of people. Bodies were used to excuse slavery, segregation, exploitation, and colonization. What portrays the true power that bodies hold is that this was a cultural norm that nearly everyone participated in for centuries on end, rather than being the radical beliefs of a few hateful individuals. The unity behind racial oppression is what allowed it to still have fragmented visible impacts today, centuries later. It is what allowed the extreme inhuman treatment of Black women like Sara Baartman, who was degraded and over-sexualized for her body by white men who were born into more power due to their bodies. Today, we still see similar stereotypes surrounding race, and are reminded once again of the power of a body in police brutality. The final injustice against George Floyd by a white police officer made a statement about how much value different bodies hold in the American justice system in the modern day. Body-based oppression extends past slavery and oppression in Europe and America; this is exemplified by the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. Different features were used as warrants for the mass murder of millions of people in two totally different times and places; however, the narrative of unified power, silent bystanders, and mass graves is the same. These two events serve as more indicators of the danger of putting bodies in a hierarchy of worth, as well as the danger of staying silent in the midst of those ideas. By the continuous reinforcement of the idea that the body a person is born into controls their power, racism, sexism, and ableism were able to continue into the modern day.
The constant reinforcement of body-based worth is easily internalized despite the “body-positive” and “anti-racism” movements today. Certain bodies continue to be valued when it is convenient or when they can be commodified or when it empowers those already in power. Other bodies are put down sometimes for the same reasons- or to align with bias (bias created by a pattern of people in power). This means that bodies hold value not only anatomical, as described by the dictionary, or social, as exemplified by historical racism, but also mental and emotional. Gender-based ideas held by many religions, such as the idea of a woman’s sexual “purity”, create double standards that are impossible to live up to and ultimately lower the self-worth of women, along with their percieved value to society. Modesty falls under the “purity” umbrella; resulting fashion trends have been used to enforce self worth based on appearance and modesty. Religion has been used as a weapon against bodies that defied norms, and although today many religions hold more progressive views, the fragmented remains of misogyny persist in our culture. Women are still classified and shamed based on things out of their control- although clothing and style is a choice, the way a body appears to others in certain clothing is not. Alternatively, men are also held to unrealistic body standards- in America, as well as many other countries, the “macho” culture, built to contain gender power to men, is in reality so toxic that it leaves many men feeling inadequate. Body-shaming has become a health problem- both men and women find coping mechanisms of every kind to find a way to live in their own bodies- that can mean exercising and eating well, but often it means extreme dieting, eating disorders, and even self harm. By the dictionary definition alone, the idea of trying to “live in our own bodies” is absurd, if bodies are simply anatomical. It may be more sufficient to rephrase the idea as trying to “live in our own bodies, due to the allocated societal value we have”. Our culture, religion, and society changes the full definition of a body as it gives and takes away its power.
Today, we are in the age of freedom never seen before concerning bodies. Although body image, racism, sexism, and ableism are still factors that affect millions of people on a daily basis, it is easier to “live within your body” than it ever has been historically. The anti-racism and body-positivity movements have been fundamental in changing the norm in how we talk about and treat different bodies, although there is still change to be made. Therefore, bodies have come to have a different representation and power- boundary-breaking historical vessels., A body can be a symptom of our history or a physical or emotional journey. A body can also tell the story of a revolution. The question “where do you feel this in your body” is one we discussed many times this semester, and it is proof that bodies are emotional, not just physical, and self-empowered, rather than a born cause of power. To leave the definition of the body at an anatomical explanation is to disregard the cultural values, historical oppression, and revolutions that have influenced the way we talk about and classify bodies today.