The term body politics refers to the practices and policies through which powers of society regulate the human body, as well as the struggle over the degree of individual and social control of the body. The powers at play in body politics include institutional power expressed in government and laws, disciplinary power exacted in economic production, discretionary power exercised in consumption, and personal power negotiated in intimate relations. Individuals and movements engage in body politics when they seek to alleviate the oppressive effects of institutional and interpersonal power on those whose bodies are marked as inferior or who are denied rights to control their own bodies.
Body politics was first used in this sense in the 1970s, during the “second wave” of the feminist movement in the United States. It arose out of feminist politics and the abortion debates. Body politics originally involved the fight against objectification of the female body, and violence against women and girls, and the campaign for reproductive rights for women. “The personal is the political” became a slogan that captured the sense that domestic contests for equal rights in the home and within sexual relationships are crucial to the struggle for equal rights in the public. This form of body politics emphasized a woman’s power and authority over her own body. Many feminists rejected practices that draw attention to differences between male and female bodies, refusing to shave their legs and underarms and rejecting cosmetics and revealing, form-fitting clothing. The book Our Bodies, Our Selves, published in 1973, aimed to widen and deepen women’s knowledge of the workings of the female body, thus allowing women to be more active in pursuit of their sexual pleasure and reproductive health.
Second-wave feminist body politics promoted breaking the silence about rape, sexual abuse, and violence against women and girls, which many interpreted as extreme examples of socially sanctioned male power. The feminists who followed at the end of the twentieth century accepted this stance on rape and violence against women and girls, but they found the gender ideals of second-wave feminists too confining. Members of this generation, sometimes called third-wave feminists or post-feminists, endorse a range of body modification and gender practices that include butchfem gender roles, gender-blending, transgender lifestyles, transsexual surgeries, body piercing, and tattoos.
Women’s bodies were the political battleground of the abortion debates. A protracted struggle to establish a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy was won when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right to abortion in the case of Roe v. Wade in 1974. Almost immediately after that decision, anti-abortion (also called pro-life) activists began protesting against this extension of women’s reproductive rights. Anti-abortion advocates likened aborting a fetus to murder, while pro-abortion advocates (also called pro-choice) pointed to the legion of women who had died in illegal abortions, and to the many more who would doubtlessly follow them if abortion were to become illegal again. In that adversaries square off over the issue of individual versus social control of a woman’s pregnancy, the abortion debates are prime examples of body politics.
Debates about laws and women’s bodies sparked the interests other groups of women who felt that government or institutional power had unfairly exercised control over their bodies or that society should take greater responsibility for the care and protection of women and children. Noting that the abortion debates were about whether or not to have a child, activists pointed to policies and practices that denied reproduction to women in minority communities, especially the forced sterilization of Native Americans. Activists from both sides of the abortion debates joined in to press for employment rights for pregnant women and for maternity and paternity leave for new parents. Arguing that the laws and ethics governing commercial sex transactions were outdated, organizations of prostitutes argued for decriminalization of their work.
The attribution of ethical, moral, temperamental, and social characteristics to individuals or populations based on skin color, facial features, body types, and sexual anatomy figure prominently in racial body politics. This practice is most pronounced in the United States in racism against African Americans. As African people were turned into commodities in the Atlantic slave trade, western countries used bodily differences to justify African subjugation. According to racist logic, dark skin was at the negative pole in the dichotomy of white and good versus black and evil, broad facial features denote licentiousness and lack of intelligence, and the brawny bodies of black men and women cry out for hard labor. The fabled sexual organs of black men and women were credited to be the seat of excessive sexuality, a belief used to blame the bodies of black women and men for their being victims of rape, lynching, and castration. Other populations have also been subject to negative characterizations. For example, the bodies of Mexicans are supposedly built low for farm labor, while the “delicate, nimble” fingers of Asian women supposedly suit them for fine work such as computer-chip manufacture.
Because body politics covers the power to control bodies on the one hand, and resistance and protest against such powers on the other hand, body politics can both uphold and challenge racism. In the United States, the civil rights movement unseated the predominant racial body politics in abolishing Jim Crow laws and abating racial segregation. The slogan “Black is Beautiful” heralded a moment in the 1960s when African Americans pointedly attributed positive values to black physical features. Body politics during that time included wearing hair in a natural, unprocessed “Afro” and donning African-inspired clothing. Remnants of this politics remain in those who attribute positive social and psychological qualities to melanin, the pigment that causes dark skin.
A major challenge to racial body politics came from within the feminist movement. In the 1970s, Black, Latina, Native American, and Asian feminists insisted that an inclusive feminism examine and redress the historic evaluations of bodily difference that structured oppression of women according to race. Women of color objected to the narrow construction of gender politics by white feminists, and they moved to include the differences that race, class, and sexuality make in women’s position in society. The welfare mothers’ movement, radical lesbians of color, and black feminist theorists were among those to call attention to the ways in which race inflected feminism. The 1981 anthology This Bridge Called My Back captured the physical nature of the social and cultural experience of women of color who tried to bridge the gap between nationalist movements where sexism flourished and the feminist movement’s singular concentration on gender. The editors, Cherie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (1942–2004) are celebrated writers, theorists, and activists, who in this influential, transformative volume brought together poetry, critical and reflective essays, and photographs of artwork by noted women of color. This Bridge Called My Back contained the first publication of Audre Lorde’s (1934–1992) essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” which along with her essays on breaking silence and the erotic as power were crucial in forging a language of body politics for women of color and lesbian feminists. This push within the feminist movement contributed to the inclusive politics of diversity and multiculturalism in the United States.
Scholarly research on body politics was greatly influenced by French philosopher Michel Foucault (Discipline and Punish, 1977), who used the terms “bio-power” and “anatomo-politics” to refer to the insinuation of governmental and institutional power into people’s everyday activities. He argued that such power shapes people’s subjectivity—their sense of themselves as persons. From Foucault’s point of view, disciplinary mechanisms such as prisons, as well as medical knowledge and the education system, provide the discourse, ideas, resources, and procedures through which individuals come to know who they are and through which they learn to conform to the social and political order. What begins as externally imposed discipline becomes internalized, such that individuals become their own disciplinarians. Even though Foucault’s work represents human subjectivity as caught in the thrall of discourses that impose meaning and shape action, inherent in body politics is the optimistic possibility that by changing the body’s relationship to power, one might change the expression of power in society. Using the concept of body politics, scholars have studied the status of women and racial minorities, and somatic or body norms generated in particular cultures (and individuals’ appropriation or rejection of them), as well the regulation of the body through hygiene, medicine, law, and sports. The study of European colonial policies and practices has been a particularly prolific area of scholarship on body politics.
Colonialism produced body politics intended to create acquiescent subjects, and it was, in part, successful. But colonialism also inspired resistance and revolution. The bodies of colonial subjects built the colonial infrastructure, fueled its economy, and bought its products. Clothing, in specified styles and patterns, and soaps and oils advertised and sold by colonizers pulled colonized bodies into the moral and aesthetic spheres of the colonizers. Colonized people were often treated as disease vectors, necessitating residential segregation and public health programs to ensure the health and well-being of the colonizers. Colonial administrations grouped colonized people according to race and tribe and used these distinctions to control their access to rights and resources. In some cultures, body politics took a supernatural turn, as the spirits of colonizers were believed to take over the bodies of former colonial subjects. This spirit possession highlights cultural memory and the embodiment of political power. Anticolonial movements rejected colonial rules of deference, fought for political sovereignty, revived older demonstrations of respect, and instituted new policies and practices to regulate the human body.
Boston Women’s Health Collective. 1973. Our Bodies, Ourselves. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.
Ginsburg, Faye. 1998. Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lock, Margaret. 1993. “Cultivating the Body: Anthropology and Epistemologies of Bodily Practice and Knowledge.” Annual Review of Anthropology 22: 133–155.
Lourde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lourde. New York: The Crossing Press.
Moraga, Cherrie, and Gloria Anzaldúa. 1983. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown, MA: Persephone Press, 1981.
Riggs, Marlon. 1987. Ethnic Notions. Director and Producer, Marlon Riggs. DVD, VHS. Distributed by California Newsreel.
Stoller, Paul. 1995. Embodying Colonial Memories: Spirit Possession, Power, and the Hauka in West Africa. New York: Routledge.
Carolyn Martin Shaw