Supporting Embodiment: Societal and Jewish Views on Body Modification by Ivy Helman


me-hugging-treeEmbodiment is a feminist principle which has, as its basis, two fundamental criteria.  First, humans require their bodies to live.  We must acknowledge that our existence is tied to our bodies.  This fact grounds us in this world.  Here, and not in some other-worldly place, we live out our lives.  We are dependent on our bodies and what the world provides for our survival.  In other words, humans are inseparable and interconnected to this world.  Humans are not above nature as the Western hierarchical dualist mindset would suggest.

Second, embodiment challenges the hierarchical dualistic notion that the mind and body are separable by connecting the mind to the body.  Humans do not exist because they think, as Descartes once said.  Rather, humans exist because of a complex system of interactions between body and mind. Without the body, the mind fails and vice versa.  The link between the mind and the body has led many feminist theorists to reject any sort of existence beyond this physical life.  That is a topic for another time.

While embodiment purports a universal component of being human, it does not follow that everyone’s embodied experiences are correspondingly universal.  This is clearly not the case.  Human embodiment entails differences.  It also has limitations.  Differences and limitations do not make one less alive, or less human so to speak, and to suggest otherwise plays into hierarchical dualistic thinking once again.

So, humans are connected to this world through a complex relationship between our bodies, minds and dependence on nature, yet, at the same time, how we connect and how we move through this world depends on the differences and limitations of our bodies.  Many of these differences and limitations have been socially constructed and assigned diverse values and meanings, many of them problematic.  However, the social constructions around body modification are what I want to focus on in this post.

Typically, when we hear or use the words body modification, things like tattoos, piercings, implants and the like come to mind.  We also often think of a smaller subculture of body modifiers, people who go to the extremes.  Many religious traditions, as well as society, bemoan such deliberate changes to human bodies.

For example, since the times of the Talmud, Judaism has connected tattoos with idolatry claiming that tattoos were an integral feature of paganism.  Yet, it is common to hear descriptions of Israelites in the Torah having pierced ears and even pierced noses with no religious objections.  In a similar fashion, circumcision, the marker of the covenant, is a form of body modification.

There are many other examples within Judaism that focus on how one treats, dresses and modifies the body: mitzvot on clothes; dietary regulations; rules for the cutting of one’s hair; ideals of care for humans, animals and the world around us; repercussions for harm; and discussions about how to interact with the dead. Clearly, in Judaism, body modification focuses on more than just permanent changes to physical appearance.  Perhaps, the best conclusion then is to suggest that when it comes to body modification, Judaism is a mixed bag: some forms are “permissible”; some required; some to be avoided; and others tolerated.

Unlike Judaism, society isn’t concerned with idolatry and tattoos, but has often associated body modification, specifically tattoos, with undesirables such as outlaws, motorcycle gangs, prison stays and, however oddly, sailors.  Tattoos marked these people as dangerous, scary or on the fringes of society.  The contemporary body modifying subculture is often viewed with similar suspicion even though a tattoo or two and many types of piercings are now quite trendy.

Yet, like Judaism, society also projects its views on many forms of body modification.  Under the cover of health concerns for our bodies, we are told we need to have a certain amount of control over our bodies: exercise; eat right; don’t smoke, and drink only in moderation.  Other types of body modifying messages convey a denial of embodiment.  Wear make-up (only if you are a girl and then not too much), have surgery to enlarge your breasts, buy these scented pads, straighten your hair, use this lotion to fight wrinkles, these clothes have slimming effects, etc.  Obviously, body modification is something we practice every day: from the clothes we put on; the food we eat; the exercise we do or don’t partake in; how we wear our hair.  Some forms of body modification are acceptable, tolerated or even shoved at us, while others are considered off-limits, counter-cultural or reprehensible.

Being truly cognizant of our bodies suggests that body modification is more than just tattoos, piercings and the like.  In fact, we practice body modification on a daily basis in our attempts to embrace, control or deny our embodiment.  Reflect on the idea of a person getting a tattoo and then loving that part of their body even more because of what the tattoo represents.  This form of body modification suggests connection to the body and self-love.  Then, consider someone else applying daily anti-wrinkle cream and having botox treatments regularly.  This form of body modification seeks to deny the natural aging process and promotes disgust of aging bodies.  Of course, this is just one example.  It is not meant to suggest a universal experience about tattooing or anti-wrinkle cream.  Nonetheless, clearly not all forms of body modification are the same.

As embodied beings, our bodies are not just necessary; they are the key to life.  Through our bodies we connect to the world around us.  It is through our bodies that we practice tikkun olam. It is important to acknowledge and practice those forms of body modification that support embodiment while calling to task those than continue to deny and to control bodies.

Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses.  She is an Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years there as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Religious and Theological Studies Department. 

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Categories: Body, Embodiment, Feminism, General, Interdependence of Life, Jewish Feminism, Judaism

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7 replies

  1. Thank you for this beautiful inspiring post. It also made me think of my grandmother always being unhappy about her body aging, and how applying anti aging lotions actually helps her reclaim more love for her body, i think. Of course she would deny it. She creates the anti wrinkle lotions from scratch and clearly loves the process though.

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  2. Fascinating post. My own age was revealed to me because the term body modification immediately brought to mind dieting not tattoos or piercings. My daughter has beautiful tattoos. Some of my contemporaries do, too, but I have never even pierced my ears. What an interesting lens you provide for looking at the ways we hate and love our bodies. Thank you!

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  3. It taken me a long time to appreciate and love my body. There is still a residue of that separation that comes from shame in some survivors of sexual abuse. But your post adds another dose of love to build on.

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  4. A fascinating post on an important topic! I have had an interesting experience with body modification in the past couple of years after I stopped coloring my hair. My hair began to go gray in my 20s, so I colored it for 20 years or so until about two years ago. It is now almost entirely gray. The second I stopped coloring my hair people began to assume I am 10 years or so older than I really am. People offer me senior discounts and seats on the subway pretty frequently and they don’t quite know what to say when I tell them that’s a few years off… What’s more interesting to me is that people immediately began to perceive me as being more powerful with gray hair. I would have thought it would be the opposite because of how older women are marginalized, but the very first time I spoke in public with my gray hair I noticed that people paid much more attention than before and people have commented on how I seem much more authoritative (in a good way, I hope!). One volunteer where I work summed it up by saying that before when I would ask her if she would help out she would say “Yes, darling!” and now she says “Yes, ma’am!” (she doesn’t actually, but she was trying to make a point). Anyway, I don’t believe I act differently so I’m baffled, but there it is!

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  5. Ivy, Thanks for this wide-ranging survey of body modification. Looking at what is vilified, what is lauded, what is required brings home how significant the body is in our culture!

    I had some difficulty with your conclusion, however: “It is important to acknowledge and practice those forms of body modification that support embodiment while calling to task those than continue to deny and to control bodies.” I would agree with that statement in a general way. However, because of your foregoing examples, I have to question what practices “deny and control our bodies.” Your examples of body-denying practices actually might not be body-denying for a particular individual. One case in point is Rebecca’s grandmother (1st comment above).

    We live in a body-denying, ageist culture, and one woman’s way of dealing with that may differ from another’s, i.e. it’s the culture that is the problem. I’ve always been a feminist who didn’t wear make-up, but felt that other feminists could make that decision for themselves and still be pro-body. Now that I’m almost 70, I’ve started wearing (a little) make-up when I’m out in public. It makes me feel better about myself, and that kind of self-confidence is a necessary thing for any women. This discussion reminds me of one of my favorite early feminist songs: “Don’t shut my sister out/Trust her choices/Her women’s wisdom and her will to grow./ Don’t shut my sister out/ Trust her vision/ Her intuition of her own way to go.”

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  6. It is such a relief to read such an excellent article on embodiment – thank you

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  7. Thank you so much for this piece! I have no tattoos (yet), but my piercings (other than my ears, which were done when I was a child) all have significance — one to celebrate my continued sensuality and womanhood when my first child was an infant, another to celebrate my last children having weaned, and another which was a gift/blessing from a rape survivor who stayed with us for a while following her assault (“What better way to remember me than an extra hole in your face?” hahaaha). Thank you for bringing up all the other ways in which we are asked/expected to modify our bodies and relationships to them — such an insightful exploration.

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