Phenomenology of the body as a lived experience

In the Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir (2015) provided the phenomenological understanding of the female living body, as developed by Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961). Beauvoir’s notion of philosophy stemmed from the phenomenological interpretation of Cartesianism. Edmund Husserl ([1913] 1983) the founder of phenomenology, addressed body throughout much of his work, including Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology. Maurice Merleau-Ponty was a French philosopher known for his influential work on embodiment, perception, and ontology. “For Merleau-Ponty it is corporeality that introduces meaning or structure into matter because the body literally incarnates material capacities for agency”. Merleau-Ponty consulted it while working on his Phenomenology of Perception ([1945] 2018) and in turn Simone de Beauvoir consulted both Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s work when developing her own phenomenological understanding of the female body. For Husserl, the body is not simply an extension of the physical self in contrast to the mind, rather a lived experience separate from other objects. The body is a locus of sensations that can only be felt firsthand by the embodied subject. Merleau-Ponty builds upon Husserl’s work, but places much more emphasis on the importance of the body in Phenomenology of Perception. Merleau-Ponty describes the body’s typical mode of existence as “being-toward-the-world”. The body itself is experienced in ways that distinguishes it from all other things, in part through its kinesthetic sense of movements. Beauvoir works from a perspective influenced by both Merleau-Ponty and Husserl to explore the phenomenology of the lived experience of women’s oppression. According to Beauvoir women are mainly identified by their bodies and men by their spirit. Simone de Beauvoir asked the question “What is woman?” in 1949, sparking a debate within the feminist movement regarding whether women have some essential shared characteristics or if the idea of woman is a social construct. In Simone de Beauvoir words, “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” (77).


Another scholar who believes that one isn’t born, but becomes a woman is Judith Butler. Judith Butler (1990) believes that gender is socially constructed, as she outlines in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Butler theorizes that gender is a performative act. She states, “gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences” (139). Butler believes that society has cultural guidelines for how genders should perform and when they do not conform to their gender normative role, they are punished through negative social sanction. It has been more than twenty years since Judith Butler wrote the first edition of Gender Trouble and there are some disagreements about her research among feminist scholars, namely her attitude towards the relevance of “unity”. Many scholars point out that Butler seems to have forgotten the oppressive forms of power have traditionally benefited from the divide and rule approach and that we should not focus on what separates us.

Feminist rhetoricians, Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman (1998) state in Material Feminisms, “Butler claims that feminists must reject the metaphysical assumptions of materiality; she asserts that a discursive understanding of the body is both sufficient and appropriate for feminism. Susan Bordo’s (2013) counter is that the hegemonic gender discourses of our society, the discourses that Butler foregrounds, create a very real reality for gendered bodies and that feminism must take account of this reality” (90).




Similar to Butler, Debra Hawhee (2004) explores the body as a performance in Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. Hawhee explores how in classical society rhetoric was performed. Prior to Butler’s Gender Trouble, Haraway (2015) published her Cyborg Manifesto in 1985, which sought to overcome the binary between nature and culture, replacing the two terms with nature/culture. Haraway and Butler’s work had some overlap, particularly related to the binary of gender. Barard (2013) followed in Haraway’s footsteps, publishing Posthumanist Performativity to radically rethink performativity of gender. Barad deconstructs categorical oppositions of nature/culture, subject/object, knower/object-to-be-known, human/non-human and realism / social constructivism.


Beauvoir, Butler and Haraway all believe gender is thus a cultural construction. Bartky describes a feminist consciousness that is anguished and wary of the patriarchic way of the world using a phenomenological approach in Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. In this work, she speaks about a woman’s body is her sense of self and essential to her sense of an individual. Bartky says that women feel shame based on the internalized patriarchal standards of bodily acceptability. When she believes her body doesn’t live up to cultural ideals, it creates shame, depression and low self-esteem. This issue of shame is also explored by Luna Dolezal (2015) in The Body and Shame: Phenomenology, Feminism, and the Socially Shaped Body, which investigates the concept of body shame and explores its significance when considering philosophical accounts of embodied subjectivity.


Donnalynn Pompper (2018), author of Rhetoric of Femininity, is similar to Butler in that she believes social construction forms our experiences, however, she applies this theory to femininity rather than gender specifically. Pompper states, “Like other rhetoricians, I posit that social constructionism greatly informs our lived experiences. Who we are as human beings and how we relate to others is shaped by the society we live in. in turn, we also shape that society. Social construction provides the backbone for this book’s attention to femininity” (xii). This area of research is critical, as bodies, femininity and the lived experience are crucial topics within feminist theories of the body.