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You are here: Home > Midlife matters > MM selected articles > Bodies beautifulTuesday 23 April 2024   

Bodies beautiful

21-May-2020 Bodies beautiful

The human body is incredibly beautiful. Its colours, shadings, shapes and intricate textures excite pleasure; crinkles, creases, scars, and tattoos incite curiosity. As we age, it changes. Sometimes, this causes anxiety; other times, wonder, says Professor Joanna Bourke. Joanna is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, and the Gresham Professor of Rhetoric.

As an historian, I am intrigued by the different ways bodies have been understood, idealised and manipulated over time. Norms change - from the thin ideal of the medieval period, which regarded slimness as close to sainthood, to the fleshy bulk of the body during the Renaissance, as in Rubens' paintings. For much of the nineteenth century, in Britain and America, plump women were regarded as particularly attractive. The 'sex goddess' of the 1890s - 1920s period was Lillian Russell, who weighed 90 kilos. At that time, it was feared that thin woman might be suffering from tuberculosis or be on the brink of starvation. Such views only changed with the women's rights movement of the 1880s onwards, which celebrated women's empowerment and body acceptance.

Bodies (and especially aging ones) are fiercely policed. Hair is one of the most visible of these social markers. It is personal, but it is also a highly-visible cultural artifact that is extremely malleable. It can be cut, coloured, curled, braided, knotted, crimped, twisted, straightened, backcombed, teased, moisturised, oiled, gelled, sprayed, shaved, and wrapped. People wear wigs, weaves, hairpieces, and extensions; they cover their hair with scarfs and hijabs, taqiyahs and yarmulkes. Hair sends out signals to oneself and others about gender, age, class, marital status, religion, group membership, familial ties and politics.

The centrality of hair to our sense of self is often only fully realised when it falls out. For many women, losing hair can feel like a bereavement, leading to a fear of socialising, extreme anxiety, and depression.

In contrast, baldness is a normal part of male aging. Sixty-five per cent of men aged over 65 inspect their bald patches in their bathroom mirrors every morning. Of course, just because something is 'normal' does not mean that it is welcomed. Follicle invigorating products are popular amongst men and restorative surgery, including hair transplantation (which flourished from the end of the 1950s), has become a major area of aesthetic medicine.

Breasts and sex organs are the most sensitive part of our selves. While men are allowed to wander topless in public spaces (which, incidentally, is a fairly recent phenomenon: topless men on US beaches were outlawed until the late 1930s), women are required to keep 'covered up'. This is especially true as a woman ages. This not only makes women feel uncomfortable in their own bodies, but it also denies us the opportunity to know what normal breasts actually look like, including their vast range of sizes, shapes, weights and colours. Heterosexual women may only ever have been exposed to the unrepresentative breasts of women like Janet Jackson, Kim Kardashian and Rihanna.

Women's breast anxieties have been medicalised. We have been sold pills, exercises, massages, creams, vibrating machines, diathermy, hydrotherapy, suction devices and so on - all promising breast perfection. Some companies crudely draw on metaphors from the burgeoning car industry, boasting that, "We fix flats".

While women's breasts have attracted a huge amount of attention, their sexual organs have not. As late as the 1970s, medical texts ignored the clitoris altogether and some textbooks continue to depict the clitoris as a diminutive penis or a small, external 'nub' next to the 'really important organs', which are the reproductive ones. Describing the clitoris in terms of the penis has been a persistent error. Since both organs develop from the same embryonic tissue, it is just as accurate to describe the penis as a version of the clitoris. It is good to remind ourselves that the glans of the clitoris contains 8000 nerve fibres - which is twice that of the penis!

But men, too, have been sold lies. Although society seems to be obsessed with the penis, most people actually know relatively little about normal penises. Both high art and low pornography nearly always show penises with a shaft when, in reality, many penises actually show little or even no shaft when not erect. Heterosexual men, too, know little about normal penises.

What does an exploration of historical and contemporary attitudes to bodies tell us? Crucially, it reminds us that body parts are not objects, but are part of subjects. Healthy acceptance encourages us to celebrate diversity, while acknowledging that bodies change over time and according to societal expectations. Only we should be allowed to say what our bodies mean for us and for our freedoms.

If you are interested in the body, please watch my videos on hair, eyes, breasts, stomachs, penises, clitorises and feet on the Gresham website: Exploring the body and my profile page.

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