The female body as a site of control

The issue of the body as a source of control and power is central in many works. Mary Douglas (2015) posits that “the human body is always treated as an image of society” and “bodily control is an expression of social control” in Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. Similarly, many scholars have posited that the root of eating disorders is the desire to take control of the body.




Hilde Bruch (2001) claims that anorexics have a history of being “perfect” and their eating disorder is an expression of taking back control of their body in The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa. John Jacobs Brumberg (2001) builds upon this idea of “perfection” in Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease by suggesting that anorexia is a secular addiction that links the desire for external body configuration perfection. This is in contrast to the religious practices of fasting to achieve spiritual perfection. William Rudolph Bell (1987) agrees with Brumberg that fasting is a desire for perfection in Holy Anorexia; However, he believes that there is a spiritual connection rather than secular, suggesting that that both thinness and holiness represent ideal states of being.


As Adrienne Rich ([1976] 2015) stated in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution “There is nothing revolutionary whatsoever about the control of women’s bodies by men. The woman’s body is the terrain on which patriarchy is erected.” Many feminist scholars have posited that the female body is both a site of scrutiny and space of control, including Lara Carlson (2016) in Gender and Work: Exploring Intersectionality, Resistance, and Identity



To explore how the female body is a constructed site for power relations, several feminist scholars have turned to Michel Foucault’s theories. In The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction, Foucault ([1978] 1990) explains the sexual body as both a principle instrument and effect of modern disciplinary power. Foucault’s idea is that sexuality isn’t a natural quality of the body, rather the effect of historically specific power relations. In Janet Ransom and Lois Mcnay’s (1994) article “Foucault and Feminism: Power, Gender and the Self” they analyze how Foucault’s ([1984] 1990) works in The History of Sexuality. Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure and The History of Sexuality. Volume 3: The Care of the Self overcomes the limitations set by his earlier work on the body. Ransom and McNay explore the significance of Foucault’s theory of the body and seeks to show how Foucault’s theory of power and the body indicates to feminists a way of placing the notion of the body at the center of explanations of women’s oppression that doesn’t fall back on essentialism or biologism. Cheryl Cooky (2006) builds upon Foucault, Ransom and McNay’s theories in “Strong Enough to be a Man, but Made a Woman: Discourse on Sport and Femininity in Sports Illustrated for Women” to demonstrate how strategies of control of women’s bodies such as cultural representations of femininity designed to control the female body are central to hierarchal social relations.

Another prominent figure who posits that the female body is a source of control is Andrea Dworkin. Dworkin’s ([1981] 1999) view is that the female body is upheld as the standard of beauty, which she expresses in Pornography: Men Possessing Women. The female body, materialized as the standard of beauty, has become the standard of compliance, submission and oppression. The patriarchal / hegemonic culture has historically sought to regulate and control women’s bodies. Dworkin states,

“Being female in this world means having been robbed of the potential for human choice by men who love to hate us. One does not make choices in freedom. Instead, one conforms in body type and behavior and values to become an object of male sexual desire, which requires an abandonment of a wide-ranging capacity for choice.”

Jennifer McWeeny (2014) conducted extensive research on the topographies of flesh and the embodiment of connection between women and nonhuman animals. In “Topographies of the Flesh”, she highlights the relationships between the types of bodies being oppressed. This duality calls for calls for paying attention to how the rhetoric of bodies are defined in terms of appearance, including body size, ability, gender, ethnicity and health, given that meanings are ascribed to physical appearance. McWeeney draws parallels between animal ontology of the human and non-human connection with feminist studies of the body. There are connections between the oppression of women and the oppression of nature