Embodiment 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.