Queering / Querying the Body: Sensation and Curiosity in Disrupting Body Norms

It is not uncommon to mistake social norms about bodies as also physically natural, psychologically healthy, and morally right.  As a result, it is easy to minimize the cost required to bring the body into compliance with social norms of physical appearance and comportment.  Likewise, it can be tempting to dismiss how frequently we judge the worth of others based on the degree to which they conform to prevailing body image ideals.  Queering/querying the body provides a means for disrupting social norms of the body; not by expanding the repertoire of socially acceptable bodily expressions, but by working to disable the act of body norming itself.  This disabling can be facilitated by a turn toward the lived, felt experience of the body and an intentional cultivation of the body’s deep curiosity.  By privileging sensation, attending to movement impulses, and honoring embodied intuition, we access a subjective data set that informs (and potentially, transforms) our relationship to objective body standards.  In this way, the disruption of body norms becomes not only a strategy for resistance against oppression, but a process of creative, sensual inquiry that each body engages as an ongoing liberatory praxis.

Body Norms, Body Shame, and Social Power

It has been argued that the more marginalized and subordinated a social position we occupy, the more we are identified as bodies, and the more pressure we experience to modify those bodies to mitigate our deviance from the norm (Price & Shildrick, 1999; Shilling, 2012).  In other words, one way to enact oppression against members of a particular social group is to characterize them as bodily objects rather than intelligent and sentient subjects, and to simultaneously depict those bodies as uncivilized, crude, ugly, or distasteful.  As the multi-billion-dollar cosmetics[I], plastic surgery[ii] and weight loss industries[iii] readily attest, women are prime subjects of such pressures to modify their bodies, but members of other socially disempowered and vulnerable groups are hardly exempt.  The elderly are routinely encouraged to retain the appearance and functioning of their youth, as evidenced by an anti-aging products and services market expected to exceed $300 billion[iv], while the effect of widespread and entrenched colorism supports a global market for skin lightening products that is projected to reach $23 billion dollars by 2017[v].

Of course, the cost of having a body that is considered substandard, deviant or otherwise problematic cannot be measured in dollars alone.  Body shame is a significant source of emotional and psychological distress, with consequences ranging from depression and diminished quality of life to social isolation and suicide (Richard, Rohrmann, Lohse, & Eichholzer, 2016; Gilbert & Miles, 2014).  For example, body objectification and dissatisfaction are increasingly prevalent among youth; a cross-sectional survey of Brazilian school children (Pinheiro & Giugliani, 2006) found a body dissatisfaction rate as high as 82%, with young girls at particular risk.  Empirical research also suggests a relatively high incidence of body shame among gay men (Wood, 2004) and a community-based study found that body fat dissatisfaction predicted higher rates of psychological distress, including depression and social sensitivity (Blashill, 2010).  Body image concerns across other sexual minority groups encompass a wide range of issues (Atkins, 2012) and are inarguably salient for many within these communities.  Critical disability theorists (Clare, 2001, 2013; McRuer, 2010) point to the pressures to modify differently-abled bodies to conform to dominant expectations of functioning and appearance, including cochlear implants for young deaf children[vi], surgeries to lengthen limbs for people with dwarfism[vii], and cosmetic surgery to alter the facial characteristics of people with Down syndrome[viii].  In short, almost no one is exempt from ongoing, multiple expectations to present our bodily selves in particular ways, and this is especially true for those whose bodies fall outside dominant social norms or whose social position does not afford them the privilege of refusing to conform.

While it can be argued that many of the body modifications we undertake feel “voluntary” to some extent, it’s virtually impossible to untangle the external messages about body image[ix] and comportment[x] that we absorb from the media, our family members, our peer groups, and our social institutions from those internal images and impulses about how the body wants to look or move (Grogan, 2016).  The complex and often unconscious motivations to pursue social ideals of embodiment are further complicated by the relative lack of power that members of oppressed groups have to resist or refuse those ideals.  Internalized racism, ableism, homophobia, and misogyny shape our bodily desires in ways that can be difficult to distinguish from our own preferences (Atkins, 2012; Edut, 2004), while the consequences of conscious and intentional deviance from certain body norms can, in some cases, be fatal[xi].

Not only is compliance enforced within fairly narrow parameters, body norms themselves are a moving target (Martin, 2010). A quick review of the cross-cultural history of body modification reveals a panoply of cultural customs as barbaric and bizarre to modern Western sensibilities as current practices of male circumcision are now beginning to seem (McLaughlin & Jerome, 2016).  For example, in North America both men and women have come to regard unshaven armpits as slovenly and unkempt in women but not in men, even though we have plenty of historical examples to the contrary and understand that our disgust is not a rational response (Basow, 1991; Fahs, 2011; Toerien, Wilkinson, & Choi, 2005).  Tattoos offer another example of the shifting ideals of bodily appearance: today, many young people mark their bodies with permanent images as a form of positive self-expression, while only a generation ago tattoos were considered so outside the norm that they were diagnostic of certain psychopathologies (Raspa & Cusack, 1990).  In other words, “acceptable” bodily expression varies so widely across cultures and generations that any claims about bodies based on the presumed universality, stability, or moral authority of body norms are inherently suspect.  Sullivan (2006) further argues that the degree to which body modification is considered a viable opportunity for people to “feel more at home in their bodies” (p. 553) or a “monstrous” act of self-mutilation (p. 557) depends largely upon the social and theoretical position of the viewer.

Given the fluidity, complexity, and contingency of bodily appearance and conduct in signifying social power and shaping identity, how do members of socially subordinated groups reclaim some authority over their body image in the process of liberation and empowerment?  As subjects whose very identities are (at least in part) socially constructed, how do we interrogate and illuminate the choices, compromises, and creative impulses to shape our body in particular ways?  How do we understand questions of agency and intent in the ongoing transformations of our body selves?  As we expand the range of our own bodily expressions to include representations that may have been prohibited or censured by the social worlds in which we live, how do we avoid the danger of advancing those counter-cultural expressions such that they become the new norms that others are expected to emulate?  In exploring these questions, two analytic/methodological tools may be useful: queer theory and somatics.  

Queering the Body

Queer theory, emerging out of the scholarly study of gay and lesbian identities in the 1990s, can be understood as an investigative strategy that questions normative assumptions about identity and relationality (Jagose, 1996).  David Halperin asserts that,

Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. ‘Queer’ then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative. (1997, p. 62)

Applied to body norms, queer theory asks us to question how these norms came to exist and by whose authority they are enforced; it requires us to ponder how our bodies are shaped by the expectations of others, and it urges us to consider the relational implications of bodily conformity and non-conformity.  If body norms are understood as the unwritten rules that govern bodily behavior and appearance in certain social settings, then how might we go about re-writing (or even erasing) these rules?

Body as a verb.  Queer theory offers a promising conceptual tool in this task.  Drawing on queer theory’s roots in post-structuralist and constructivist perspectives (Sullivan, 2003), it becomes possible to shift our understanding of the body from an unchanging object to a series of multiple processes and unstable positions.  Queering the body means shifting it from being a noun to being a verb; a body is not something one is, but something one does (Butler, 2004).  And if bodies are (at least in part) processes and acts we do, then so are body norms.  By extension, if body norms are the product of reiterative acts of norming, they can be undone.

Think of something you do every day that affects how your body looks or behaves.  Perhaps you brush your teeth before bed, or cover your hair before you go outside, or wear a necktie to work.  Maybe you remove your shoes when you enter someone’s home, or apply lipstick after a meal, or shave your facial hair.  Do you perform these body acts automatically, without thinking?  What would it feel like not to do them?  How might not doing these acts affect your body image?  Your self-image?  How do you think others would respond to you not performing these actions?  What do you think of people who don’t do these things?  As you reflect on your answers to these questions, use this opportunity to notice the implicit assumptions that undergird your bodily habits.  In particular, notice how social power (particularly the power to coerce, refuse, patrol, and censure) might be embedded in each of these actions.

In questioning the reproduction of body norms through our everyday actions, it is important to keep in mind that body norms (like other social norms) are not inherently harmful.  Norms establish a coherent set of expectations about our roles as members of particular social groups.  They can enhance feelings of group membership, support group cohesion and productivity, and signal behaviors that might threaten the safety and stability of the group.  However, they are also equally effective at prohibiting benign differences, stifling individual creative expression, and inducing shame, resentment, and inequality across groups.

Even within subcultures whose members denounce the inequities of the dominant culture, body norms can perform both affirming and restrictive/excluding functions.  For example, in her blog post On Queer Aesthetics and Not Feeling Queer Enough (2017), Emma Hardy describes how someone introduced her to others at a radical queer house party as “the token straight girl”, even though Emma herself identifies as queer.  In unpacking this overt dismissal of her sexual identity, Emma notes, “I wonder how much of it comes down to pure aesthetics. While I’m all for non-normative relationship structures, I don’t look radical. I work in a corporate setting and dress the part. Apart from some bleach and a little underarm hair, I’m repellingly mainstream.”  She goes on to argue that “conforming to gendered stereotypes or normative standards of beauty doesn’t make me more or less queer” and asserts that “when we reduce our identities down to an aesthetic, as liberating as that aesthetic may be, we also risk commodifying it.”  Queer theorist Nikki Sullivan (2006) concurs.  She notes that within some queer and feminist communities, “the assumption seems to be that those forms of body modification that do not explicitly set themselves up in opposition to so-called ‘normative’ ideals…are politically suspect.” (p. 553)

The irony these stories point out – that members of oppressed social groups are perfectly capable of being oppressive about body norms within their own communities – underscores the real value of queer theory in the project of disabling body norms.  Queering the body is not necessarily about altering one’s appearance and behavior in defiance of dominant norms (although there’s nothing wrong with that).  It’s about questioning our choices (or lack of choices) with respect to how our bodies look and move, regardless of our position(s) on the multiple spectrums of social identifications.

Querying the Body

The second useful tool in our project of interrogating body norms is somatic theory and practice.  Tracing its roots back through to existential phenomenology and the work of Maurice Merleau Ponty (1963) and Thomas Hanna (1970), a somatic perspective is oriented to the subjective felt experience of the body in the world.  Somatic practices work to cultivate sensory awareness both interoceptively and intercorporeally – they draw upon what we feel in our bodies as well as what we experience in the body-to-body relational field.  In other words, although body norms focus on how our bodies look and move as observed from the outside, a somatic perspective privileges how we experience our bodily selves from the inside.  This shift in focus allows us to incorporate (literally, to take into our bodies) how it feels to enact particular body expressions. As any seasoned somatic practitioner will attest, feeling into the body in this way usually works best when approached with gentle curiosity, and without a strict agenda.  This attitude of inquiry allows for the emergence of sensory and imaginal data that might otherwise be overlooked.

Think about a body norm that you enact on a regular basis.  Perhaps you sit with your knees held closely together while riding on public transit, or whiten your teeth.  Maybe you wear a bra or a suit, smile at strangers on the street, remove the hair from a particular area of your body, or take medication for acne.  The next time you enact this norm, notice the (perhaps subtle) bodily sensations, emotions, and images that attend this activity.  See if you can suspend interpretation of this somatic data long enough to allow this new information to settle into patterns and possible understandings on its own, without imposing meaning or judgement[xii].

By asking questions about body norms we interrupt the automaticity of such actions and gestures.  We make them less unconscious, less involuntary, and more available for possible change.  To be clear, I am not suggesting that querying normative bodily expression reduces the risks associated with transgressing those norms.  However, by asking ourselves how we feel in our bodies when we enact a body norm, we introduce information that was not available to us previously – information that might shift how we understand our bodily behaviors, preferences, and assumptions.

These somatic inquiries are likely to surface a range of complex responses that don’t necessarily suggest a clear and simple course of action.  For example, querying the established Western body norm for adult females to wear a bra might reveal uncomfortable sensations of breathing constriction and tissue compression as well as comfortable feelings of support and containment.  Experimenting with transgressing the norm (in this case, appearing in public without a bra) might result in bodily sensations of freedom and mobility as well as lack of protection and an increase in feelings of scrutiny or exposure.  Everyone will experience sensations and emotions unique to them, and may use this interoceptive, proprioceptive, and sensori-emotional data in support of a whole range of possible actions.  The point of somatic inquiry is not to collect body-centered evidence in support of predetermined change, but to enhance our whole-person awareness of self and others.  In many cases, simply allowing ourselves an opportunity to immerse oneself in sensation without judgement or agenda is in itself a liberatory experience.

Feel into a body practice that you’d like to shift, or a body image you’re considering modifying.  As you contemplate the change, ask yourself if you’re fixing a “problem” or disguising a “flaw”.  Are you feeling pushed or drawn?  Anxious or excited?  Is the desired body image coming at you from the outside or emerging from within?  What would your body do if it could do anything?  How might this new body expression support the cultivation of a body image that feels authentic, creative, poetic, or empowering? 

Querying the Bodies of Others

Post-structural theories of the body typically consider the body as a text onto which dominant social conventions and understandings are inscribed, and from which one’s social position can be read (Butler, 2011; Foucault, 2012; Grosz, 1994).  Indeed, some post-structural theorists argue that the body is less a material object than an effect of discourse (that is, what we say about it).  Regardless of the degree to which you understand the body as a natural, physical entity or how much you consider it a social construction, it’s clear that we read onto bodies (our own and others) a vast array of cultural meanings.  Nonverbal communication researchers (Ellyson & Dovidio, 2012) and critical embodiment theorists (Price & Shildrick, 1999; Cohen & Weiss, 2012) have described the myriad, complex, and subtle distinctions in bodily appearance and behavior and documented how social power and position is inferred and perpetuated through these body-based indicators.  When it comes to body norms, we are probably as highly skilled at “norming” the bodies of others as we are at “norming” our own.

A class exercise I frequently conduct with graduate students asks them to “read” my body for indicators of my social identifications and positions; they pay attention to my posture, gait, gestures, clothes, grooming, and facial expressions and from these observations make remarkably astute inferences about my gender identity, social class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, and religion.  In unpacking the exercise, I encourage students to reflect on several points:  1) the facility and automaticity of their reading of my body (in other words, they had read my body well before I asked them to – often within seconds of first meeting me), 2) the initial discomfort they experienced in being asked to make their assumptions about me explicit (this speaks not only to the power imbalance between teacher and student, but also to cultural prohibitions against noticing and naming the body), and 3) the high degree of inter-rater reliability across members of the same social group – for example, queer students were often able to “read” indicators of my queerness with a greater degree of specificity and nuance and tended to agree with one another about the meaning of those indicators.   Although this exercise is not about the imposition of body norms per se, it does highlight the degree to which we compare observed bodily indicators with internalized social categories (Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000; Kang & Bodenhausen, 2015) and that we pay attention to the social categories that are most important to us.  Once students are comfortable with the idea of body reading as ubiquitous and spontaneous, they are then able to take the next step: realizing that these readings have judgements attached, and that we assess people’s social worth (at least in part) based on the degree to which their bodies meet the norms we have internalized.

Consider how you apply your own body norms to the bodies of others.  How does the appearance and behavior of someone’s body affect the assumptions you make of their intelligence, competence, and character?  What do you find revolting, abhorrent or ridiculous about the bodies of other people?  For example, are there certain bodies (or body parts) you would feel uncomfortable touching?  Rather than taking your visceral reaction to someone’s body as proof of its basic unacceptability, use it as an invitation to explore your own cultural and historical relationship with the norm their body seems to transgress.

Given the habitual and largely unconscious nature of social categorization processes (and, by extension, most body norming), it can be difficult to interrupt the process long enough to interrogate or problematize the assumptions we make about people based on their body (Sandoz & DuFrene, 2014).  However, recognizing that body norming is a culturally-bound and subjective process (rather than assuming that body norms represent a fixed and objective truth about bodies) is an important first step.  From there, exploring the problematic assumptions and assessments we make about our own bodies can serve as a methodological foundation for extending that curiosity and compassion to others.

Queering/querying the lived experience of the body in the world means not only exploring the embodied lives of those whose identifications have pushed them to the margins of the social world, but also questioning normative assumptions about all bodies and all experience.  Practically speaking, queer theory and somatic practice provide a means for interrogating body norms in ways that offer the potential for disrupting implicit assumptions about what bodies are – as well as how they should look and behave – while simultaneously anchoring our bodily expressions in subjective sensory data.  By infusing a somatic approach with the insights offered by queer theory as a form of post-structuralist critical theory, it becomes possible to understand the lived, felt experience of the body in the world as never politically neutral.  In this chapter, I have attempted to offer strategies for working with body norms that go beyond the surface of any particular counter-cultural position and begin to investigate the radical potential of the body’s sensuality.  In other words, we queer/query body norms not by looking at the body from the outside and making politically-strategic adjustments, but by feeling into it.  

Originally published in Oppression and the Body: Roots, Resistance, and Resolutions (2018) by North Atlantic Books and is reissued here with permission from the author.

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[i] Łopaciuk, A., & Łoboda, M. (2013). Global beauty industry trends in the 21st century. In Management, Knowledge and Learning International Conference (pp. 19-21).

[ii] http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/global-cosmetic-surgery-and-service-market-report-2015-2019-295910691.html

[iii] http://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/weight-loss-obesity-management-market-1152.html

[iv] https://www.bccresearch.com/market-research/healthcare/anti-aging-products-services-report-hlc060C.html

[v] http://www.futuremarketinsights.com/reports/skin-lightening-products-market

[vi] Pass, L., & Graber, A. D. (2015). Informed Consent, Deaf Culture, and Cochlear Implants. The Journal of clinical ethics26(3), 219.

[vii] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11832-016-0791-z

[viii] http://www.ndss.org/About-NDSS/Media-Kit/Position-Papers/Cosmetic-Surgery-for-Children-with-Down-Syndrome/

[ix] Body image has been defined in the literature as “a subjective concept of one’s physical appearance based on self-observation and the reaction of others” (Martin, 2010, p. 98).  The ideal body image varies considerably across culture, ethnicity, and other social group identifications.

[x] Body comportment refers to body posture, gestures, and movement mannerisms.

[xi] As evidenced by the increasing number of murders of transwomen of color, for example.  See Powell, T., Shapiro, S., & Stein, E. (2016). Transgender rights as human rights. AMA Journal of Ethics18(11), 1127.0.

[xii] For readers interested in learning more about the process described here, Eugene Gendlin’s approach to body-centered self-inquiry, called Focusing, is a useful resource (1982).