Bodies & Embodiment

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Bodies & Embodiment

Organized by: Amanda Levitt, Wayne State University
Updated by: Erielle Jones, University of Illinois – Chicago

This section on bodies and embodiment seeks to give educators an in-depth collection of articles to use when discussing the body as a site of labor, political identity, and visibility politic. While also embodying gender, racial, class or other identity status where social situations are impacted by how the body is used, viewed and performed.

Sabur, MD Abdus. 2022. Gender, Veiling, and Class: Symbolic Boundaries and Veiling in Bengali Muslim Families”. Gender & Society, 36(3): 397-421
In Bangladesh, due to economic growth and greater access to education, more girls and women are veiling, even as they are also more likely to be in school or employed. Some scholars identify this trend of women appearing both “more modern” and “more religious” as paradoxical. On the basis of 114 in-depth interviews with Bangladeshi migrant workers (n = 57) in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Singapore, and South Korea and their wives (n = 57) in rural Bangladesh, I claim that Muslim women in middle-class Bengali families who veil are cultivating symbolic boundaries guided by an accountability structure of middle-class religiosity and gender conservatism. The increasing tendency of middle-class Muslim women to appear both “more modern” and “more religious” can be explained by examining the role that veiling plays in signaling class status through conspicuous consumption, moral superiority, and respectable femininity, differentiating them from lower class women. I conclude that “doing gender” through veiling must be understood as also “doing middle-class difference” in Bengali Muslim families in rural Bangladesh.

Andrejek, Nicole, Tina Fetner, and Melanie Heath. 2022. “Climax as Work: Heteronormativity, Gender Labor, and the Gender Gap in Orgasms”. Gender & Society, 36(2), 189–213.
Gender scholars have addressed a variety of gender gaps between men and women, including a gender gap in orgasms. In this mixed-methods study of heterosexual Canadians, we examine how men and women engage in gender labor that limits women’s orgasms relative to men. With representative survey data, we test existing hypotheses that sexual behaviors and relationship contexts contribute to the gender gap in orgasms. We confirm previous research that sexual practices focusing on clitoral stimulation are associated with women’s orgasms. With in-depth interview data from a subsample of 40 survey participants, we extend this research to show that both men and women engage in gender labor to explain and justify the gender gap in orgasms. Relying on an essentialist view of gender, a narrow understanding of what counts as sex, and moralistic language that recalls the sexual double standard, our participants craft a narrative of women’s orgasms as work and men’s orgasms as natural. The work to produce this gendered narrative of sexuality mirrors the gender labor that takes place in the bedroom, where both women and men engage in sexual behaviors that emphasize men’s pleasure to a greater extent than women’s.

Crowley, Jocelyn Elise. 2021. “Sexual Harassment in Display Work: The Case of the Modeling Industry.” Gender & Society 35 (5): 719-745.
This feminist analysis focuses on sexual harassment within a specific category of jobs known as display work, where primarily women’s bodies are commodified and sold to consumers, and often through the conduits of powerful male industry leaders. Using qualitative content analysis methods to analyze 88 subjective, first-person narratives of harassment from 70 models working within the fashion business, I describe how the commodification of bodies interacts with the particular features of the modeling industry—the premium placed on youth, ambiguous industry demands, and the presence of kingmakers—to produce an environment in which opportunities for sexual harassment can proliferate. All these factors impose extreme worker vulnerability costs on predominantly women and ultimately contribute to maintaining gender-based, hierarchical power differentials between men wielding authority within the industry and these models over time.

Hill, Dominique C. 2021. “And Who Will Revere the Black Girl.” Gender & Society 35 (4): 546-556.
While the mainstream media continues to narrowly define justice and reduce the site of its presence or absence to murder scenes and court cases, justice is often foreclosed long before someone is murdered and we must #SayHerName. To expand the project of Black mattering beyond race and physical death, this essay animates how body policing through school dress code policy sanctions racial-sexual violence and provide girls with an ultimatum: either abandon body sovereignty and self-expression, or accept the consequences of being read as a distraction, a problem. (Re)membering classic Black feminist theory and the 2013 case of Vanessa Van Dyke, this essay locates these underrecognized facets of state violence as an extension of the #SayHerName project. Through a Black girlhood studies framework, the author underscores embodiment as an essential measure of justice and reframes mattering through the importance of Black girls’ crowns.

Islam, Asiya. 2022. Plastic Bodies: Women Workers and Emerging Body Rules in Service Work in Urban India.” Gender & Society, 36(3): 422-444
Drawing on the narratives of young lower-middle-class women employed in cafés, call centers, shopping malls, and offices in Delhi, India, in this paper I identify malleability or “plasticity” of the body as an important feature of contemporary service work. As neophyte service professionals, young women mold themselves to the middle-/upper-class milieu of their workplaces through clothes, makeup, and body language. Such body plasticity can be experienced as enabling: Identifying with the image of the “New Indian Woman,” young women enter the bourgeoning service economy. However, they also experience this body plasticity as threatening; bodily changes to meet the requirements of work can, at times, feel inauthentic as well as be read as promiscuous by others. I draw attention to how women appraise plastic bodies as both generative of change and a site of labor discipline, thus offering insights into the relationship among bodies, social inequalities, and contemporary service work.

Nazareno, Jennifer; Cynthia Cranford; Lolita Lledo; Valerie Damasco; and Patricia Roach. Between Women of Color: The New Social Organization of Reproductive Labor” Gender & Society, 36(3): 342-367
In this article, we examine citizenship inequalities in paid reproductive labor. Through an analysis of elder care in Los Angeles, California, based on interviews with Filipina home care agency workers and owners, we delineate citizen divisions made up of two interlocking dimensions. The longstanding U.S. welfare state abdication of responsibility for elder care for its citizens generates a racialized, gendered citizenship division that facilitates another citizenship division between women of color. The outsourcing of elder care by the government to the private sector including small business in the ethnic economy allows Filipina immigrants with legal citizenship to become middle-women minorities who hire undocumented Filipinas to provide care for white, middle-class, older adult women and their families. Through this new social organization of reproductive labor, responsibility is directed away from the state and generating tensions between women of color with different legal statuses. Our findings show how racialized, gendered inequalities are reinforced through this new social organization of reproductive labor but also demonstrate potential for undermining intersecting inequalities.

Hutchens, Kendra. 2022. “‘People don’t come in Asking for the Gospel, They come in for a Pregnancy Test!’ Feminizing Evangelism in Crisis Pregnancy Centers”. Gender & Society, 36(2), 165–188.
Led by women, faith-based pregnancy centers constitute the largest segment of the movement to oppose abortion in the United States. These centers provide services for women (e.g., options counseling and ultrasounds) but face criticism for offering assistance motivated and shaped by conservative religious views. In this article, I explore how evangelical staff at two faith-based centers in the western United States conceptualize their work as religious practice and reimagine “doing” evangelism. I draw upon observational, interview, and textual data to show how gender shapes the definition, expression, and affective nature of evangelism. In “feminizing evangelism,” the centers challenge established evangelical practice to “share the gospel,” which necessitates spiritual regulation, a distinct form of emotional labor. In highlighting the emotional complexity of gendering religious practices, this article contributes to scholarly conversations at the intersection of gender, religion, and emotion.

Johnstonbaugh, Morgan. 2021. “Men Find Trophies Where Women Find Insults: Sharing Nude Images of Others as Collective Rituals of Sexual Pursuit and Rejection.” Gender & Society 35 (5): 665-690.
As sexting has become more common, so has the sharing of nude and semi-nude images of others. While women and men may both engage in this practice, when they do so they often participate in distinct gendered rituals. Drawing on 55 in-depth interviews with college students, I examine how the symbolic meanings attached to men and women’s nude images in the context of intimate heterosexual interactions shape collective rituals of sexual pursuit and sexual rejection. I find that men share images of women with their peers to demonstrate sexual prowess and receive praise, whereas women share images of men with their peers to cope with unwelcome sexual advances and receive support. These gendered rituals are linked to the perceived desirability of men’s and women’s nude images. While rituals of domination appear among men and reproduce unequal gender relations, rituals of commiseration appear among women to resist unequal gender relations.

Reena Kukreja. 2021. “Colorism as Marriage Capital: Cross-Region Marriage Migration in India and Dark-Skinned Migrant Brides.” Gender & Society 35 (1): 85-109.
This article, based on original research from 57 villages in four provinces from North and East India, sheds light on a hitherto unexplored gendered impact of colorism in facilitating noncustomary cross-region marriage migrations in India. Within socioeconomically marginalized groups from India’s development peripheries, the hegemonic construct of fairness as “capital” conjoins with both regressive patriarchal gender norms governing marriage and female sexuality and the monetization of social relations, through dowry, to foreclose local marriage options for darker-hued women. This dispossession of matrimonial choice forces women to “voluntarily” accept marriage proposals from North Indian bachelors, who are themselves faced with a bride shortage in their own regions due to skewed sex ratios. These marriages condemn cross-region brides to new forms of gender subordination and skin-tone discrimination within the intimacy of their marriages, and in everyday relations with conjugal families, kin, and rural communities. Because of colorism, cross-region brides are exposed to caste-discriminatory exclusions and ethnocentric prejudice. Dark-skin shaming is a strategic ideological weapon employed to extract more labor from them. The article extends global scholarly discussion on the role of colorism in articulating new forms of gendered violence in dark-complexioned, poor rural women’s lives.

Gonsalves, Tara. 2020. “Gender Identity, the Sexed Body, and the Medical Making of Transgender.” Gender & Society 34 (6): 1005-1033.
In this article, I argue that the medical conceptualization of gender identity in the United States has entered a “new regime of truth.” Drawing from a mixed-methods analysis of medical journals, I illuminate a shift in the locus of gender identity from external genitalia and pathologization of families to genes and brain structure and individualized self-conception. The sexed body itself has also undergone a transformation: Sex no longer resides solely in genitalia but has traveled to more visible parts of the body, implicating racialized aesthetic ideals in its new formulation. The re-imagining of gender identity as genetically and neurologically inscribed and the expanding locus of sex correspond to an inversion of the relationship between gender identity and the sexed body as well as shifts in medical jurisdiction. Whereas psychiatrists in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s understood gender as stemming from genital sex, the less popular idea that gender identity precedes the sexed body has gained traction in recent decades. If gender identity once derived from the sexed body, the sexed body must now be brought into alignment with gender identity. The increasing legitimacy of self-defined gender identity, the expanding definition of racialized sex, and the inversion of the sex–gender identity relationship elevates the role of surgeons in producing racialized and sexed bodies.

Ispa-Landa, Simone, and Mariana Oliver. 2020. “Hybrid Femininities: Making Sense of Sorority Rankings and Reputation.” Gender & Society 34 (6): 893-921.
Gender researchers have only recently begun to identify how women perceive and explain the costs and benefits associated with different femininities. Yet status hierarchies among historically white college sororities are explicit and cannot be ignored, forcing sorority women to grapple with constructions of feminine worth. Drawing on interviews with women in these sororities (N = 53), we are able to capture college women’s attitudes toward status rankings that prioritize adherence to narrow models of gender complementarity. Sorority chapters were ranked according to women’s perceived heterosexual appeal to elite men. Women believed that top-ranked sororities conferred social power whereas middle- and bottom-ranked sororities offered greater freedom from policing over members’ bodies, fashion, and socializing. However, middle- and bottom-ranked sororities sometimes sought to rise in the rankings. When this occurred, existing members were marginalized, and a new pledge class with a greater tolerance for socializing with high-status “rapey” fraternities was sought. Women’s discussions of sorority rankings show evidence of a hybrid femininity that fuses practices from traditional models of gender complementarity and more recent models of women’s empowerment.

Smeraldo Schell, Kait, and Jennifer M. Silva. 2020. “Resisting Despair: Narratives of Disruption and Transformation Among White Working-Class Women in a Declining Coal-Mining Community.” Gender & Society 34 (5): 736-759.
In this article, we examine how white working-class women reimagine gender in the face of social and economic changes that have undermined their ability to perform normative femininity. As blue-collar jobs have disappeared, scholars have posited that white working-class men and women have become increasingly isolated, disconnected from institutions, and hopeless about the future, leading to a culture of despair. Although past literature has examined how working-class white men cope with the inability to perform masculinity through wage-earning and family authority, gender has been undertheorized in these discussions, treating working-class women’s and men’s despair interchangeably. Drawing on 37 in-depth interviews conducted in a former coal-mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania, we identify three overarching strategies that women deploy in their life histories to cope with disruption: embracing pain as an opportunity for self-growth; dispelling shame and striving for equality; and enduring suffering. These strategies allow women to feel hopeful and worthy as they confront enormous challenges, whether starting over following relationship dissolution, learning to be independent from men, or simply surviving hardship for the sake of their children. We explore the implications for recreating gender identity in each strategy and question how different strategies might serve to protect women from, or alternatively solidify, sentiments of despair.

Pape, Madeleine. 2019. “Gender Segregation and Trajectories of Organizational Change: The Underrepresentation of Women in Sports Leadership” Gender & Society 34 (1): 81-105
This article offers an account of organizational change to explain why women leaders are underrepresented compared to women athletes in many sports organizations. I distinguish between accommodation and transformation as forms of change: the former includes women without challenging binary constructions of gender, the latter transforms an organization’s gendered logic. Through a case study of the International Olympic Committee from 1967-1995, I trace how the organization came to define gender equity primarily in terms of accommodating women’s segregated athletic participation. Key to this was the construction of women’s bodies as athletically able but inferior to men, an arrangement formalized in codified rules and procedures and legitimized by external stakeholders. Defined in these terms, gender equity did little to transform the organization’s binary and hierarchically gendered logic, which continued to shape the informal norms and procedures associated with the organization’s allegedly gender-neutral and meritocratic yet male-dominated leadership. I argue that the exclusion of women from ostensibly gender-integrated leadership positions allows organizations to avoid revealing gender similarity between men and women. This maintains a logic underpinned by notions of binary gender difference and masculine superiority.

Balogun, Oluwakemi M. 2012. “Cultural and Cosmopolitan: Idealized Femininity and Embodied Nationalism in Nigerian Beauty Pageants.” Gender & Society 26 (3): 357-381.
The author considers how two separate Nigerian beauty pageants create two different forms of gendered and embodied nationalism. Comparing the two different pageants shows how one creates a form of gendered nationalism that focuses on embodying the values and culture of Nigeria. The other is to find a woman that can represent Nigeria internationally by embodying a gendered nationalism that is able to transcend or reach the standards of an international community, while still being able to represent their home country. This article shows how different practices and standards can create two different forms of national identity or femininity that both serve a purpose by emphasizing how embodying these identities can represent a form of gendered nationalism.

Hammer, Gili. 2012. “Blind Women’s Appearance Management: Negotiating Normalcy Between Discipline and Pleasure.” Gender & Society 26 (3): 406-432.
This article discusses how blind women use appearance management and use their body as a tool to disrupt or reject stigmatizing beliefs about themselves made by society. The author confronts how most literature about women’s appearance focuses on visual interactions where women “see and are seen” with them taking an active role in using sight with these interactions, which ultimately leaves out how disabled blind women negotiate these interactions. What she found were women taking on a visibility politic that challenged normative beliefs about how blind women perform or embody femininity to actively challenge how others view them.

Mora, Richard. 2012. “’Do It For Your Pubic Hairs!’: Latino Boys, Masculinity and Puberty.” Gender & Society 26 (3): pp. 433-460.
This article highlights the embodied experiences of Puerto Rican and Dominican adolescences. Through ethnographic research, the body becomes the central way boys in puberty understand their masculinity and social world. The author examines how the boys construct masculinity through social practices and interactions that directly reference their changing bodies. Due to the research subjects positionality as second generation immigrants, they construct a masculinity that emphasizes toughness and physical strength.

Hennen, Peter. 2005. “Bear Bodies, Bear Masculinity: Recuperation, Resistance, or Retreat?” Gender & Society 19 (1): 25-41.
Looking into the subculture of Bear communities, this article takes a look at how gay men embody Bear culture through resistance against stereotypical association of homosexuality with effeminacy by embracing larger, fleshy hairy bodies. This article also discusses how Bears look, act and perform masculinity within the subculture. By looking at how Bear embodiment is performed, Hennen shows that while Bears can be subversive in challenging normative forms of masculinity they still repurpose it as an attempt to form normalization.

Schrock, Douglas, Lori Reid, and Emily M. Boyd. 2005. “Transsexuals’ Embodiment of Womanhood.” Gender & Society 19 (3): 317-355.
This article draws on in-depth interviews with nine white, middle-class, male-to-female transsexuals to examine how they produce and experience bodily transformation. Interviewees’ bodywork entailed retraining, redecorating, and reshaping the physical body, which shaped their feelings, role taking, and self-monitoring. These analyses make three contributions: They offer support for a perspective that embodies gender, further transsexual scholarship, and contribute to feminist debate over the sex/gender distinction. The authors conclude by exploring how viewing gender as embodied could influence medical discourse on transsexualism and have personal and political consequences for transsexuals.

Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Tamara. 2003. “Strong and Large Black Women?: Exploring Relationships Between Deviant Womanhood and Weight.” Gender & Society 17 (1): 111-121.
This article questions the societal and cultural image of Black women as strong and suggests that this seemingly affirming portrayal is derived from a discourse of enslaved women’s deviance. In highlighting connections between perceived strength and physical size among Black women, the analysis extends current feminist theory by considering the ways in which the weight many strong African American women carry is reflective of the deviant and devalued womanhood that they are expected to embody both within and outside their culture. This article also provides a stark contrast to the many of the themes found within literature about the body, eating disorders and body image that focuses on white women by taking into account the how the intersections of race and gender impact how black women’s bodies are framed in society.

Kang, Miliann. 2003. “The Managed Hand: The Commercialization of Bodies and Emotions in Korean Immigrant-Owned Nail Salons.” Gender & Society 17 (6): 820-839.
This article gives an introduction to how bodies are used as the site of labor, while also discussing the how intersections between race and class status shape emotional labor by looking at service interactions through an ethnographic study.  Main themes show how bodies are used as a performance to conform to correct or acceptable appearance while on the job, maintaining emotions to better serve customer needs and conceptualize how bodily labor changes with intersecting identities.

Williams, Susan. 2002. “Trying on Gender, Gender Regimes, and the Process of Becoming a Woman.” Gender & Society 16 (1): 29-52.
In this article it discusses how adolescent girls “try on” or experiment with gender as a means to fully create sense of womanhood. Based on a 4 year study of 26 adolescent girls this article is a good reference to understanding how femininity or sense of gender is created not only through experimentation but also how communities have differing forms of femininity due to class, race and gender differences.

Bailey, Lucy. 2001. “Gender Shows: First-Time Mothers and Embodied Selves.” Gender & Society 15 (1): 110-129.
This article discusses the transition into motherhood and the impact it has on women’s sense of gendered self. The authors look at three separate themes that they found from their research sensuality, shape and space. This article would be a good contribution to understanding changes to the body during pregnancy creates a need to reconceptualize how gender impacts the sense of self during this period.

McCaughey, Martha. 1998. “The Fighting Spirit: Women’s Self-Defense Training and the Discourse of Sexed Embodiment.” Gender & Society 12 (3): 277-300.
This article presents ethnographic research on women’s self-defense training and suggests that women’s self-defense culture prompts feminists to refigure our understanding of the body and violence. The body in feminist discourse is often construed as the object of patriarchal violence (actual or symbolic), and violence has been construed as something that is variously oppressive, diminishing, inappropriate, and masculinist. Hence, many feminists have been apathetic to women’s self-defense. As a practice that rehearses, and even celebrates women’s potential for violence, women’s self-defense illustrates how and why feminism can frame the body as both a social construction and as politically significant for theory and activism.