“The spirit / soul / self is – it’s an untainted and fragile part of our being. It needs the body to hold it, it needs thoughts to frame it and it needs emotions to manifest itself and that is why we must be deliberate about what we construct around us and the world to build it up.” Of Beauty
In my previous post I presented the spirit /soul /self as the essential part of who we are that, though is not socially constructed, is greatly influenced by what is built around it. In that presentation I may have oversimplified the soul’s surroundings, specifically the body which holds it, as just a container. However, the body is not an empty box to be reduced to its physical and biological properties – to only consider the saliency of the body is to centralize a medicalised representation of the body (Wolputte, 2004). Being a black, female body infected with HIV you fast realise how you experience your body, and illness is beyond medical paradigms.
As beauty is a social construct one, must recognize the body as an agent of social praxis and as Turner (1994) puts it, “the body must be understood as a relationship that is both subjective and objective, meaningful and material, personal and social”. The body is the “material infrastructure” of the production of self, belonging and identity (Wolputte, 2004). Thus, though the body is a physical entity, it is also representation. One must consider two bodies – a physical body and a social body that each constitute different realms of experiences. They mirror the physical into the social and cause the physical to be experienced in social terms. For instance, to reference my previous post again, I spoke of how in high school a peer came across a picture of a thin me and remarked how I, “looked much better thinner”. My thin body represented beauty, sexiness and health to her, as it does in many societies. “Thinness in dominant Western (and, increasingly, global) discourse is promoted as a symbol of self-control.” (Wolputte, 2004). Unbeknownst to her, I was extremely sick in that picture, as my illness had become resistant to the medication. The slightly heavier me that stood before her had an undetectable viral load at the time, and yet I still felt a sense of shame for having gained weight. Socially, a bigger body is “unhealthy,” hence the disconnect between how I experienced my body physically, and how I experienced it socially. As a further example of how representational the body is in society, I once disclosed my status to someone, and her first remark was, “no wonder you’re so thin!” Never mind Regardless of the state of my health at the time, for that person, the social stereotypes and stigma associated with HIV and AIDS were represented by my body. Based on the information I gave her, no longer was thin healthy, it was now HIV.
I feel it important to note that both people in these interactions were white girls. This is significant to me, because not only was I in full awareness of my illness, but my blackness. Black bodies are identified mostly by skin colour. Skin marks the boundary not only of the individual as a biological and psychological entity, but also of the social self (Wolputte, 2004). A social skin fashions the boundary between the individual and other social actors (Turner 1980 as cited in Wolputte, 2004). Bodily appearance mobilises identity – identities are public and shared aspects of individuals, that establish what and where a person is within the social structure (Kelly & Field, 1996). Black women occupy a lowly position and status within the social structure, hence having two white girls comment on my body felt no different than the white supremacy that has been marking parameters of body image for centuries. In this white supremacist system, a black woman encounters difficulty in the development of her body schema; consciousness of her body is a negating activity. As Fanon (1952) describes it, it is a “third-person consciousness,” where the black body is surrounded by an atmosphere of certain uncertainty (Fanon, 1952 p258). Furthermore, these two white girls having assessed my body had “woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories” – stereotypes. (Fanon, 1952 p258). Identities are read off and imputed by others on the basis of physical appearance. My body was more than a physiological self to balance space and localise sensations. Being a woman meant it was called on to be thin, to depict beauty, for sex. Being HIV positive meant it was no longer identified as beautiful or sexy but marked by illness. Being black meant the white girls felt entitled enough to tell me so.
There are many things said about my black, female, HIV positive body. Oversexualised stereotypes about black woman abound, historically, in the media and in broader society. Added to this is the common notion that HIV infection is a moral judgement for promiscuity. Not only am I “sealed into [a] crushing objecthood” (Fanon, 1952 p257) but I am a sexual object that is damned by disease. The self is linked to the body, as they are often experienced simultaneously, and sometimes as one, however, when bodily demands and presentations conflict with self-presentation the individual becomes acutely aware of the divergence between body and self (Kelly & Field,1996). Chronic illness involves changes in self-conceptions which are reciprocal to bodily experiences, feelings and actions. I have undergone many transactions of self-conceptions, constantly undergoing transformations of self as I face my sickness daily. Kelly & Field (1996) describe illness as a “negotiated state” whereby the relation between self and identity in chronic illness is a social process which alters through time, as bodily contingencies change. I am quite aware of how my body is examined and evaluated by society (often with the same seriousness of a medical evaluation), and unfortunately at times this leads to a self-objectification. Just as it is with beauty I have to do constant mental work to remind myself of the social constructions that work to limit me.
Construct. Deconstruct. Reconstruct. Churn!
Ultimately, I work to remind myself that this body is a home – a home for my spirit / soul / self. A home more dimensional than a houses’ walls. Chronic complex. Crying. Joy. Dissonance. Inward. Aware. Dichotomous. Wonderfully, fearfully made. Black as it is, woman as it is, diseased as it’s deemed. It is my home and beyond the social constructs I must live in here – truly LIVE in here.
Wolputte, SV. (2004) Hang On To Your Self: Of Bodies, Embodiment and Selves. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. , 33, 251-69
Kelley, M.P. & Field D. (1996) Medical Sociology “Chronic Illness & The Body” Sociology of Health & Illness, 18(2), 241 -257
Frantz, F (1992). The Fact Of Blackness” Donald James & Ratansi Ali (1992) (eds), Race, Culture and Difference, Sage, London