20th century, Humanities

Iris Marion Young : A ‘new look’ female bodily experience

By Lauren Steyn

Throughout history, the image of women has undeniably been that of ‘the Other’; with the female form long associated with fragility, sex, birth, age and flesh. Iris Marion Young (1949-2006), a leading political philosopher and feminist theorist, explored the female body from an experiential point of view and so sought to fill the gap between existential phenomenology and feminist theory – something that had never been done before. In her work she attempts to overcome the view of the female body as an object to be studied by turning rather to the idea of the female bodily experience. Young has focused on a wide range of topics within female bodily experience, namely pregnant embodiment, the breasted experience, menstruation, and the clothed experience. In one of her earlier essays, Throwing like a girl: A phenomenology of feminine body comportment, motility, and spatiality, Young examines questions of how women’s bodies move in space, how women express themselves through their bodies, or rather how they are unable to do so.

In the essay, Young notes that in contemporary consumerist society women’s movements are typically different from men’s in that women tend not to make full use of their body’s spatial possibilities, while men are a lot freer in their movements. Women’s engagement in physical activity is timid, uncertain, and hesitant, while men are confident and fluid. As an example Young looks at throwing (‘like a girl’). When throwing something, girls do not reach back, twist, move backward, step, and lean forward as much as boys do. Rather, they remain relatively immobile except for their arms, and even the arms are not extended as far back as they could be. However, Young does not claim that her account extends to all women in consumerist society, but rather is interested in determining in which social circumstances her account applies.

In engaging in physical tasks, women lack a trust in their bodies to carry out their aims. Young suggests that there is a double hesitancy here. On the one hand, women often lack confidence that they have the capacity to do what must be done. They decide before they have even attempted a task that it is beyond their capabilities and thus do not give it their full effort. Of course, women then perform poorly and so fulfil their own prophecy. On the other hand, women have a greater fear than men of getting hurt. They perceive their bodies as being fragile and easily damaged. Thus, their attention is divided between their body’s ability of accomplishing their aim, while at the same time saving itself from harm. If they do not perceive their body as fragile, they are confronted with other contradictory feelings when entering a task – they are expected to be fragile, and therefore do not want to appear too strong.

These factors often produce in women a feeling of incapacity, frustration, and self-consciousness. In this way women learn to experience their bodies as a burden, rather than a medium for the enactment of their aims. Instead of feeling powerful, they are made to feel debilitated. It is as though they must have their attention directed upon their bodies to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do, rather than paying attention to what they want to do through their bodies.

The source of many women’s supposed physical delicacy is in neither anatomy nor physiology, nor in a mysterious feminine essence. Rather, the source is in the particular situation of women in a sexist oppressive society. Women in contemporary society learn to live in accordance with the definition that patriarchal culture assigns them. They are physically inhibited, confined, and objectified. Of course there are women in contemporary society to whom these bodily issues do not apply. However, these issues are still present in a negative sense – as that which those women have escaped or overcome.

In patriarchal society, girls and women are not given the opportunity to use their full bodily capacities in free and open engagement with the world, nor are they encouraged as much as boys are to develop specific bodily skills. Girls are not often asked to perform tasks demanding physical effort and strength, while as boys grow older they are asked to do so more and more. The reason for female inadequacy, however, is not limited only to lack of practise.

When girls come to understand that they are girls, they learn to present their bodies and move in a way that is ‘feminine’. Girls actively learn to hamper their movements so as to conform to the feminine aesthetic. They are told that they must be careful not to get hurt, dirty, or tear their clothes. Thus they develop a bodily timidity that increases with age. In their assumption that they are girls, they take themselves to be fragile.

Possibly the most important reason for female inadequacy is the fact that the body is frequently both subject and object for itself at the same time. In patriarchal society women are defined as object, as a mere body, and are thus regarded as such. Women are viewed as passive flesh and therefore the potential object of another subject’s intentions and manipulations, rather than as a living manifestation of action and intention. Because they are exposed to this powerful view in any public space, women then actively take up this attitude of their bodies being a mere ‘thing’. For the body to be effective, it must not be seen as an object, but rather as a subject (i.e. active). It is only then that women will reclaim power and control over their actions and their lives.

Young, I.M. ‘Throwing like a girl: A phenomenology of feminine body comportment, motility, and spatiality.’ Human Studies, 3, 137-156. (1980).
Young, I.M. ‘Pregnant embodiment: Subjectivity and alienation.’ Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 9, 45-62 (1984)
Young, I.M. ‘Women recovering our clothes.’ in Silverman. H and Welton. D (eds.) Postmodernism and Continental Philosophy, pp. 144-152 (New York, 1988)
Young, I.M. ‘Breasted experience: The look and the feeling.’ in Leder. D and Rawlinson. M (eds.), Medicine and Lived Body (US, 1990)

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