The “Normal Body”, its Construction, and its Abolition.

written for a brief test for a 100-level Women’s Studies paper at the University of Auckland in August 2014.

The “normal” body is obviously a highly contentious issue. A “normal” body in the West is white, cisgender (one could argue even male), able both physically and mentally, is skinny, toned, or muscly, and is a lot rarer than the concept of “normal” would suggest. As Audre Lorde says, this norm is mythical, and “each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me’’.[1]

The concept of a “norm” is complex, and one that the theorist Foucault did a lot of work on, especially in how power relates with and resides within this norm. By examining places of deviance both physical – hospitals, asylums, and prisons – and otherwise (most notably sexuality) Foucault theorised the concept of the “Eye of Authority” – we are being watched by ‘Authority’, or those residing within the norm, and being judged for deviating.[2] It is this judgement and the threat of social ostracism that attempts to push people to confine to the norm.

The existence of a norm naturally creates an Other, and this is another function that is used to further coerce people into confining as much as possible and challenging as little as possible. The process of Othering, as Foucault describes it, is the disciplining of us into a (normative) social pattern – it is the “process whereby the subject is defined by identifying it against what it is not”.[3] As Beauvoir writes in “The Second Sex”: “She [woman] is defined & differentiated with reference to man, not he with reference to her. She is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the subject, he is the Absolute. She is the Other.”[4] This is notably in opposition to biological research in which the female is the biological norm, and the male is a variation on this norm – that is, female is default.  It is also not a universal idea – in Ancient Greece, masculinity was earned though masculine acts, and every man had the threat and terror of reverting to the default of femininity through losing his masculinity. This shows the power of the constructed norm and of the systems within society that support it.

Systems and institutions within society are created around this concept of the norm and serve the function of supporting it while punishing the Other. This becomes especially obvious where the Other comes into contact with a system that should be relatively neutral – the medical system is a good example. When an Other makes it to the system – which is not always a guarantee, considering many Othered people have lower chances of seeing a doctor in New Zealand, perhaps due to the way the system treats them – that system treats them inadequately, often taking assumptions on race or gender as to how the patient wishes to be treated or how the patient could be treated.[5] This is exemplified in the NZ medical system by the fact that only 2% of Maori diagnosed with clinical depression were offered medication as opposed to 45% of non-Maori patients with the same diagnosis.[6] It is also exemplified by the non-consensual surgeries on intersex infants, with the sole purpose of “normalising” in the malformed belief that a child cannot grow up healthy if their body and thus developing gender identity does not fit within a certain binary system.

These systems and societal ideas form a feedback loop that serves only to strengthen this “mythical norm”. The norm benefits a small portion of Western society and is detrimental to the rest. It sees both women and men striving to achieve largely detrimental physical forms, it sees children operated on at birth, an operation which is often never talked about, and growing up with severe trauma, and it is not an exaggeration to say that this norm is the cause of many deaths per year.[7] I would extend Audre Lorde’s quote to: “that is not me, it has never been me, it will never be me, and I will have nothing to do with it outside the cause of dismantling it.”

 

[1] Phyllis Herda, “The Construction of Gendered Identities”. (Lecture, WOMENS 100, University of Auckland, July 24, 2014)

[2] Phyllis Herda, “Constructing Normality”. (Lecture, WOMENS 100, University of Auckland, August 26, 2014)

[3] Herda, “The Construction of Gendered Identities”.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “A fair go in Health,” Human Rights Commission NZ, accessed August 28, 2014, http://www.hrc.co.nz/key-projects/a-fair-go-for-all/a-fair-go-in-health/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tamara Alexander, “The Medical Management of Intersexed Children: An Analogue for Childhood Sexual Abuse”, Intersex Society of North America, accessed August 28, 2014, http://www.isna.org/articles/analog

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