Femininity, Masculinity, and Body Image Issues among College-Age Women: An In-Depth and Written Interview Study of the Mind-Body Dichotomy

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In this article we explore college-age women's perceptions of femininity and masculinity, and the participants' related body image issues. A smaller sample of collegeage men is also included. This qualitative interview research is grounded in the feminist literature on body image and social constructionist scholarship as well as feminist theory on the mind-body dichotomy, suggesting ways in which this long-standing dualism shapes women's and men's attitudes and related behaviors.

The Cartesian mind-body dichotomy that has dominated knowledge construction for centuries assumes an artificial separation and constructs a hierarchy between the two categories (Harding, 1986; Sprague & Kobrynowicz, 2004). Mind, and those things associated with mind are placed on a higher plane than its oppositional form: body. As many feminists have argued (Bordo, 1993; Butler, 1990, 1993; Weitz, 2003; Wolf, 1991), the mind-body binary puts men and women, masculinity and femininity, in opposition to each other; masculinity is located in mind qualities and femininity is located in the flesh (Hesse-Biber, 1996, 2006). As Sandra Lee Bartky (1988) writes, "Woman's space is not a field in which her bodily intentionality can be freely realized but an enclosure in which she feels herself positioned and by which she is confined" (p. 30). Conceptions of women's spaces delineate a common idea of enclosed space, of power/powerlessness, and of the body as a site of gendered performativity (Butler, 1993). As gender is an achieved status (Connell, 1995; Weitz, 2003), both males and females perform gender. For males, gender is less confined to the physical body, but also involves attitudes, perception, and intelligence (Connell). Historically, intelligence itself was a quality linked only to males, particularly in fields such as psychoanalysis, philosophy, and medicine (Connell; Martin, 1987; Martin, 1996; Pateman, 1988). Calculation, competence, and logic appeal to the capabilities of men to exercise institutional and personal power over women, which render them inferior to their male counterparts. Historically, men have controlled cultural constructions of femininity and have positioned women's bodies as sites of objectification (Bartky, 1988; Foucault, 1977, 1978.) Even when men's bodies are thought of in physical terms, they are most often situated in contexts pertaining to power over women, or in comparison to women's bodies, separating the powerful from the less powerful (Lorber, 1993). Through the sexualization of women's bodies, the physical body itself becomes the site of sexuality in which personality and emotion are removed or ignored (Berger, 1977; Wolf, 1991).

Debate regarding the extent to which the Cartesian conception of the mind-body dichotomy continues to inform the performance of gender has again become the subject of considerable theoretical work among feminists as a result of postmodern and poststructuralist thought. The Cartesian tradition presents a constituting subject (agency), while a non-Cartesian viewpoint may posit a constituted subject (product of social forces) (Cosgrove & McHugh, 2002; Hekman, 1991). The feminist critique of the Cartesian subject is twofold: First, the Cartesian subject has been conceptualized as inherently masculine (Hekman) and second, it falsely segregates the mind from the body. Feminist scholars have attempted to construct a subject that integrates the mind and body and "eschews the sexism of the Cartesian subject while at the same time retaining agency" (Hekman, p. 44). In this regard, we turn to French feminist thought. In particular, Julia Kristeva, influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, provides a model of subjects in process (and bodies in process) that operate within the context of the symbolic order, which has been discursively gendered masculine (Kristeva, 1980, 1987). Put differently, the realm of media and language are patriarchal constructions and women must subvert them from within, as we can never stand outside of social constructions (Kristeva). …


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