The politics of human bodies

Dr Christine Peta Disability Issues —
What does it mean to be viewed as someone who has a normal or abnormal body? Society’s ideas of a normal body separates people from one another as well as impose conditions on people in relation to who should be visible and who should not be, who belongs and counts in society and who should be fixed (Malmberg, 2009).

When people look at a man or a woman with a physical impairment, they usually do not start by seeing the gender affiliation of the person, they first see the person’s disability and thereafter the gender.

It is, therefore, not surprising that when people are being counted, a woman or a man with disability may in some instances be left out with the argument that they are disabled, hence they are not viewed as complete or normal men or women.

Maria explained that before she acquired physical impairment, she was viewed as someone.

But when she started using a wheelchair, she was no longer seen as a person but as a thing (a non-woman).

Some people stopped talking to her as the disability took a great part of her identity and stripped her of both her humanity and womanhood (Malmberg, 2009).

In Western society, when it comes to mythical standards of a woman’s beauty, slim women are regarded as normal and desirable.

As such, younger women risk being anorexic by adhering to slimming diets whilst mature women may turn to plastic surgery and face lifts to retain certain beauty benchmarks (Andrews & Studd, 2005).

The notion of feminine beauty in most African societies differs from the Western norm but it is not less demanding as it may be represented by body features of a rounded, plump and huge woman (Adeyele & Okonkwo, 2010).

Although both Western and African women with disabilities may not agree with either hypotheses, different body shapes have remained central to the classification of bodies as either normal or abnormal, ugly or beautiful, in scenarios where some people may oppress themselves by engaging in practices that seek to alter their bodies to make them what is seen as normal.

Many of us will remember the story of Sarah Baartman, a Khoisan slave woman who was owned by Dutch farmers who lived close to Cape Town, South Africa.

Baartman attracted the attention of a military surgeon who thought she would be a major attraction in England because of her remarkable physical features. Such features included her big backside and big hips, not unusual for Khoisan women, but regarded as some form of disability or abnormality in the West, where slimness is esteemed. She was sent to London as a slave in 1810, where she was put on display and visitors where permitted to touch her body after paying extra fees (Harcourt, 2009).

The banning of slavery in Britain saw Baartman being sold to a French animal trainer in 1814, where she continued to be displayed under more inhuman conditions. She was turned into a subject of various scientific studies and paintings and she elicited some interest from the French national museum (Smith, n.d.).

When Baartman died in 1815, her corpse, genitals and brain were put on public display in France until 1974 when they were privately reserved.

Upon assuming the presidency of South Africa in 1994, Nelson Mandela requested the French government to return Baartman’s remains to South Africa, it took eight years for the French government to grant the request (Harcourt, 2009).

In 2002, Sarah Baartman’s remains were returned and buried on South Africa’s Women’s Day near Baartman’s home. Nelson Mandela sought to restore the dignity of an African woman who had been made fun of, in both her life and death. Malmberg (2009) advances a number of questions: what really constitutes a normal body? At what point is a body regarded as normal and in accordance to whom and in what setting?

The discussion of human bodies cannot be complete without examining the role that is played by the medical fraternity in body politics.

The medical profession gains prestige by applying scientific knowledge and having the authority to create statistical measures or norms against which all bodies are judged (Pylypa, 1998).

Medicine wields the power to create disease classifications, thereby defining what is normal and what is abnormal, albeit in a scenario where people with disabilities may feel marginalised.

Malmberg (2009) quotes a woman with polio induced physical impairment who said: “This strange attitude still exists.

I don’t know if I should call it an attitude or a kind of treatment, you are polio, you aren’t a person, instead you arrive there [at the hospital] and in my files it says POLIO and then everything has to be related to polio, then I’m just polio. It really feels so strange [I am not polio, I am a woman]”.

Representing the healing face of science and technology, the medical discourse is rarely questioned.

Once a bodily status has been certified by the medical fraternity as one that has departed from the biological norm or as being sub-standard, people rarely query such certification (Wilkerson, 2011).

However, challenges arise when the power of medicine goes beyond the prescription of medicine to frame people’s identities and the manner in which people should live their lives, thereby prohibiting certain practices and making others possible (Pylypa, 1998).

Medicine is so powerful that some people with disabilities end up asking doctors for permission to marry or for permission to be intimate with their partners (Wilkerson, 2011).

Such a social power of medicine is rarely acknowledged but a study carried out in the US cites the example of two people who have epilepsy and who were given permission to marry by a medical doctor but were directed not to be intimate.

In the same context, some women with spinal cord injury-induced physical impairments were denied birth control pills as if they had reached the end of their lives because of disability.

Way forward
Let us re-imagine disability and reflect on what it means to have a different and dynamic body which is constantly interacting with the environment, in the same way that every other body does (Garland-Thomson, 2005; Hall, 2011).

As we move from exclusion to inclusion, let us aim to nurture societies that enable both non-disabled people and people with disabilities to embrace different bodies without fear.

Considering that the medical discourse is held in high esteem, medicine has a significant role to play in reducing the fear of disability through the way it analyses and manages the politics of different bodies.

An excessive emphasis on the medical diagnoses of impairment runs the risk of implying that the answer to the challenge of disability lies in the medical curing of impairments.

Whilst clinical “facts” about the body are needed to facilitate medical treatment where it is required, disability is a challenge which not only demands medical prescriptions. Divorcing biology from social relations may, therefore, have a negative impact on the well-being of people with disabilities.

The idea is not to impose solutions but to merge medical perspectives with an intense effort to facilitate, to listen, and to hear the voice of people with disabilities, in any case they are the masters of their own bodily experiences.

Dr Christine Peta is a public health care practitioner who, among other qualifications, holds a PhD in Disability Studies. Be part of the international debate on how best to nurture a society which is more accessible, supportive and inclusive of disabled people. Partner with Disability Centre for Africa (DCFA) on WhatsApp 0773-699-229, website www.dcfafrica.com and e-mail; [email protected]

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