Being a Body: A Look at Embodied Personhood

By Caty Brown

Art by Sarah Berman

How many times a day do I remember that I am a body? How many times does awareness of my physical form come to mind? Perhaps hundreds, if we consider awareness to be moments of adjustment when I cross my legs or push my bangs back. Perhaps a dozen, if we consider awareness to be moments of consideration of capability when I wonder if biking up the hill after the gym will finally do me in or if I can reach the sweater that fell behind the stack in my closet. Perhaps, generously, a handful, if we consider awareness to be moments of understanding how our bodies are constantly used to sell us things, ideals, belief systems. We perpetually take our bodies for granted, forgetting that every moment of our lives we exist as (and only as) a bodied being, and are perceived as bodied. Like it or not, we exist in a physical form. I have borne my body, and my body has borne me. I have lived its pain, and it has lived mine. I have torn it to shreds, starved it, denied it, drugged it, hated it, and loved it. There is no self without the body, but the body is endlessly capable of being edited, framed, medicalized, essentialized, and manipulated outside of our control. Foucault reminds us of the power of bodies: “Mechanisms of power are addressed to the body, to life, to what causes it to proliferate, to what reinforces the species, its stamina, its ability to dominate, or its capacity for being used.” [1] Our bodies are a battleground for wars inflicted by a variety of systems, from advertising, ideals of safety, healthcare, and, critically, ourselves.



I: Advertising & The Gendered Body

How Bodies are Used to Sell Us Ideals

I’ll begin with perhaps what is most digestible: how bodies market and are marketed. Most of us are probably familiar with the idea that advertising capitalizes on our tendency to idolize, even as we are fully aware that the idolization is misplaced. The woman with beautiful long hair will sell us shampoo, the man with broad shoulders and prominent musculature will sell us power tools, and the person with good teeth will sell us toothpaste. Bodies are useful tools to perpetuate the consumerist goal of global capitalism. In many cases, women’s bodies become the product, objectified to the extreme, where a woman’s shape becomes a beer bottle, breasts become burgers — disembodied caricatures of feminine bodies designed to make us consume. But ads don’t merely sell products: they sell “values, images… concepts of love, of sexuality, of success, and perhaps most importantly, of normalcy… They tell us who we are, and who we should be.” [2] And critically, no one looks like the woman in the magazine ad, not even the woman herself. Bodies in marketing are smoothed, nipped, colored, constructed, and reconstructed to create an ideal, to normalize a fantasy version of humanity, especially of womanhood. And this fantasy world is one that is designed to control us. Even despite the fact that most of us are aware of the impossibility, the idealization of a particular species-body is subconscious, impressed into the foundations of our brains. We recognize that impossibly thin bodies in advertising idealize excessive thinness, but we don’t always realize that they are subconsciously teaching us to minimize ourselves, to stop taking up space. But even as limbs and waists grow ever smaller, hips and breasts keep enlarging, teaching us that our bodies are only useful when they embody reproductive potential. Skin is lightened, teaching us that brownness is only valuable when it is approximating a white ideal. The reinforcement of a normalized species-body is quiet, settling amongst our subconscious without us ever realizing. The normalized woman’s body (thin, pale, fertile, and more) is fantastical, teaching us that whatever we are is something to hate. Womanhood is made to be shameful, and our self-hatred is part of the mechanism of oppression: “So, how do you torture a woman? You can pry her body away from her mind, or you can pry her mind away from her body. To pry her body away from her mind, you need to physically humiliate her. Of course, rape is the most traditional method, but it’s not the only one. You can ridicule her body; you can make her strap her breasts in. You can make her embarrassed about her periods. You can make her frightened of puberty, frightened of sex, frightened of aging, frightened of eating. You can terrorize her with her own body, and then she will torture herself.” [3] If advertising can teach a woman that she is only valuable when she is thin, sexualized, powerless, and empty of herself, then she will silence herself, ready to be filled with foreign notions of what womanhood means.

2: Security & The Colored Body

How Bodies are Used to Construct the Other

In 1991, Rodney King joined a long list of Black men who had been assaulted by police. His experience was not novel and was in no way the first of its kind. However, the way in which the violence was covered by national and international news media was unprecedented. In almost all media, the experiences of the Other – experiences of violence, of the “disconcerting, discordant, and anarchic” [4] – are sanitized or erased, made consumable in a world where consumer satisfaction is everything. But Rodney King’s beating “broke through the nets of anesthesia.” [5] The American Living Room, if only for a moment, saw the brutality against Black bodies, and critically, Black people. But in the trial of the Los Angeles police officers, King’s body was used as a tool by attorneys for the police department, who reconstructed his beaten body into a “racial, disciplinary, and legal object.” [6] Repeatedly, King was described using bestial terms, described as “bear-like” and as “getting on his haunches.” [7] He was animalized, his pain was falsified, and his experience was disembodied. As soon as the violence began, King was viewed as less human, legitimizing the continuation of the violence. His pain was also repeatedly ignored or minimized, further Othering him (largely via racialization) as a dangerous being, unable to be hurt. He was described as on PCP (autopsy did not confirm) as well as being drunk, and these things were used to justify the violence. According to the aggressors, he couldn’t feel the pain of his beating because he was drunk and high. Not only this, but the very video that documented the injustice was used against him. Frame-by-frame analysis, purposefully and carefully employed by the defense, distanced the violence from the act. His body was “montaged into a purely electronic entity” that could be endlessly paused, fast-forwarded, edited into a cinematic fantasy. The footage of “King the body” distanced “King the man,” removing the individual’s pain from the act of violence. The fantasy version of the footage created by the defense insists King is an animal, dangerous and trying to escape the beating, just as it insists that he cannot feel pain. King’s Black body asked for violence, insisted upon injustice, demanded the beating. [8] The denial of King’s humanity via his Blackness is one of many ways that the Other is barred from personhood and is denied the recognition of trauma. Whiteness is continually reinforced as the normalized race, as Blackness is shamed, beaten, and murdered.


3: Healthcare & The Sexed Body

How Bodies are Used to Enforce the Hegemony

Gender-affirming healthcare across the globe is often inadequate, forcing many dysphoric individuals to seek unregulated care or remain in a state of body discomfort (both of which can lead to negative wellness outcomes). In the United States, several states continually attempt to limit the options of transgender individuals, from denying gender-affirming surgeries and hormone therapy to criminalizing both parents and healthcare providers of dysphoric adolescents. Arguably, these all attempt to separate the body from the individual’s humanity to thereby control them both; however, the attempt to criminalize pubertal blockers is most salient. Texas Governor Greg Abbot and other conservative politicians have described the use of pubertal blockers as child abuse, as unnatural, as cruelty. [9] One of the most effective tools to treat dysphoria is denied to those who need it most.


The term “pubertal blocker” refers to GnRH, gonadotropin releasing hormone, which is an important, naturally occurring hormone in everyone without an endocrine problem. It stimulates the release of FSH, follicle stimulating hormone, and LH, luteinizing hormone. These two hormones begin to be released in adolescence, causing the emergence of secondary sex characteristics, i.e. puberty. When GnRH is given as a pubertal blocker, it desensitizes the receptor for the hormone, making the secretion of FSH and LH incredibly low. As long as the GnRH is administered, puberty is blocked from naturally occurring. [10] The incredible value of this treatment is in the extra time it buys for dysphoric children. Instead of puberty trapping them in a body that isn’t right until they are finally old enough to begin HRT (hormone-replacement-therapy), they have time to decide (though it is important to note that many dysphoric children don’t need this time as they understand their desired body presentation long before a medical system will believe them). Instead of their bodies running away from them — hips widening, voice deepening, jaw sharpening, breasts enlarging —they can wait until they are old enough to medically consent to the path they want their body to take. And therein lies the rub. When transgender individuals are granted autonomy, power over their bodies’ predetermined development, control is threatened. A social order that relies on gender binary is threatened by granting dysphoric individuals power. People with endocrine problems, people post-menopause or on birth control, children who start going through precocious puberty, and many more all have access to these very same types of hormones with little difficulty because they are not threatening a hegemonic system of gender that normalizes an immutable binary system of sex. If we are allowed to control our own biology, defying the predetermined route our genome dictates, how will health be externally regulated? How will the normalized species-body be created by medical and legal systems, if individuals are able to be agents in our own wellness? Only when we are stripped from our bodies, living without control over the organism we inhabit, does the hegemony of gender fully succeed in removing our agency and controlling our bodies.



There are dozens of examples of how our bodies are wrenched apart and reformed in an essentialized way by mechanisms of power. Selecting only three (the way advertising normalizes the gendered body, security creates a racially violent Other, and health systems essentialize the sexed body) felt as if I was doing an injustice to you, reader, whose body is being acted upon by multitudes of factors I haven’t been able to address. So instead, I ask you to consider how your body has been possessed by forces outside your control. How can you look at advertising critically, and ask what you are being taught? How can you reconsider the false justifications of violence exerted on bodies of color, and ask what role you play? How can you consider your gendered body, and ask why you perform gender the way you do? Though the three examples I described vary greatly in effect, seriousness, and magnitude, each one can be difficult to see when it affects our own lives. Their influences are often silent, deeply entrenched in our brains. Our bodies are reached into and gutted like rotten fruit. Left is a husk, ready to be invaded, reshaped, convinced of its own ugliness, its own violence, its own horrible strangeness. And we can hardly feel it happening. Our bodies are used to reinforce systems of hatred, inequality, discrimination, and injustice that we ourselves knowingly and unknowingly perpetuate. Power over the body is power over life itself, regulating our sexualities, our races, our sexes, our goals, our ideals. Control over bodies must be able to “center on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls.” [11] We aren’t people, anymore, under systems of power that value us in this way. So, I invite you to reclaim your own body, if you can. Fill it with yourself. And when moments inevitably surface where you find yourself hating your womanness, your Blackness, your trans-ness, and find yourself enforcing the denial of your own humanity, please forgive yourself. Slowly, I hope, you can learn not to love yourself, but to be yourself, free of the violent domination that your body has borne its entire life.



Works Cited:

[1] Michel Foucoalt, The History of Sexuality, “Right to Death and Power over Life” (1976).

[2] Jean Kilbourne, Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women. (2010)

[3] Carolyn Gage, The Second Coming of Joan of Arc. This play has Joan of Arc share her story with a contemporary audience of women. The second act explores how contemporary society uses a variety of creative ways to exert control over women, from physical torture to mental torture inflicted by women themselves.

[4] Allen Feldman, on cultural anesthesia, 405

[5] Allen Feldman, on cultural anesthesia, 408

[6] Allen Feldman, on cultural anesthesia, 409

[7] Allen Feldman, on cultural anesthesia, 409

[8] I would recommend reading more about the aftermath and impact of the acquittal, particularly in LA. Try starting here: https://www.npr.org/2017/04/26/524744989/when-la-erupted-in-anger-a-look-back-at-the-rodney-king-riots

[9] “Stopping the Puberty Apocalypse.” Columbia Public Health. (2022) https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/stopping-puberty-apocalypse

[10] https://mydoctor.kaiserpermanente.org/ncal/structured-content/Treatment_Puberty_Blocker_Medications_and_Gender-Affirming_Care_-_Pediatric_Endocrinology.xml?co=%2Fregions%2Fncal

[11] Michel Foucoalt, The History of Sexuality, “Right to Death and Power over Life” (1976).