Defining Self. As Patient, Woman, Disabled   8 comments

I would have posted a “comment” to Chris’ post but alas I can’t seem to post comments anymore for some reason without them needing to be “approved” or some such nonsense.

That said, don’t feel cynical Chris.  I too, even as a woman, had issues with the reading.  And I think your question is very valid.  I guess the medical terminology can be seen more as “secrets”, not just the language of The Man, get me?  And by disseminating medical terminology to their female readers, Our Bodies, Ourselves was not so much conforming to the established patriarchal medical community as it was revealing or decoding the medical community’s top secrets.

What types of text were chosen (or not chosen) took on entirely different issues for me concerning this book.

Perhaps Leandra and I will talk more about it during presentation, but we were discussing what quote to post on the first page of our powerpoint.  Leandra had suggested opening with “Since the alienation of women from their bodies has been one of the main aims of male domination, we must take control of our own bodies before we can liberate our minds and be our own people.” (pg 42)

I suggested cutting off the first part of the sentence to just post “[W]e must take control of our own bodies before we can liberate our minds and be our own people.” 

Leandra disagreed with this (rightfully so) on the grounds that this would significantly change the meaning of the quote.  But in regard to our presentation on Patient Support and Advocacy I didn’t think that the change would be a negative one.  Here is what my email argument was:

I hear what you’re saying about the quote being changed by chopping off the front half.  (I was figuring you would bring that up actually)  But I’m okay with it, because it transcends the quote from the feminist movement into the broader patient movement of today.  I don’t think it changes it in a negative way, rather puts a broader up to date spin on it.  The medical community is a patriarchal system.  You know I agree with you on that.  But I like to broaden the scope of wanting to be a patient who wants to know more about my body, not just a woman who wants to know more about my body.  By claiming myself as a “woman patient” (as opposed to “patient”) I am reinforcing the system and its hierchy, and I am setting myself up to fight against oppression right off.  And afterall the book is entitled Our Bodies, Ourselves.  Not Our Female Bodies, Our Female Selves.  There is already a presumption of Body versus Self without engendering either one.

This led to further discussion (and Leandra can better comment on her perspective), but it really made me wonder, perhaps the title of the book was indeed partially an attempt at neutrality? Away from the patriarchal establishment by not even conveying a difference between female and male even in the title?  Perhaps where Chris sees utilization of the established medical terminology as a possible giving into that power hierarchy if you will, I see the title of the book as a way to do the exact opposite, to present a neutral title that will not conform within the hierarchy.  “Our Bodies, Ourselves” as just a title could be feminine or masculine.  There’s nothing gendered about “our”.

Personally, before the debate on the quote took place I had already been reading into the text as to its role with disabled women.  I had already found trouble with equating body as self.

Wells discusses how The Collective tried to emphasize the unification of body through the process of self-exploration from the exterior to the interior.  The body as “whole, and one.” (156)

Also the idea of connecting with the inner self as perhaps a more positive outcome than scrutinizing the outer self was another step towards taking the interior approach.  The exterior could be seen as a marker of objectivity, dividing women by bust size, waistline, skin color, height, etc.  If exterior provides for negative objectivity, then perhaps interior can provide a positive common ground.

“Our culture of surfaces has not established norms for a ‘nice’ liver or the ‘right’ fallopian tubes; the interior of the body, at least for young and healthy women, is a region free of judgment.  It can serve as a ground of positive universality; it is the place where women’s bodies may not all look the same, but all work the same.”  (148)

“Instead of exigent judges, they would become investigators.  Instead of searching for surface flaws, they would discern the subtle workings of interior organs.” (163)  But is it possible to go from “investigators” to “exigent judges” even within the realm of the interior? 

How can disabled women reconcile their bodies as themselves?  If the outside human form is not accepted by society’s norm, and the inside of the body is incredibly unhealthy (organ systems not functioning or even shutting down; nervous system ‘mis-firing’), where can “positive universality” be found?

Wells poses two interesting questions:  “What is a ‘whole’ woman, and what does it mean to represent a woman’s whole body?  When does the representation of variation become a fetishization of racial or age differences?” (144)  Could that extend to fetishization of differences in ability and disability?

Wells notes on pg 69 that disabled women did not like being referred to as “they”, but instead “wanted all readers to think of being able-bodied as a temporary state.”

I find great conflict with much of this reading so perhaps someone else in the class can add some clarity.  As a disabled woman, if able-bodied is a temporary state then am I to assume that myself is a temporary state as well?  I don’t want to end up representing variation to the point of fetishization, but whether or not I look at my body from the exterior or interior it is broken, and how can I then connect that broken body with myself without going mad?  For me, I find a disconnect of body, but rather my spirit, myself—not my body, myself—is the key to healthy self image.


Posted October 12, 2010 by gentyrrell in Uncategorized

8 responses to “Defining Self. As Patient, Woman, Disabled

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  1. Perhaps where Chris sees utilization of the established medical terminology as a possible giving into that power hierarchy if you will, I see the title of the book as a way to do the exact opposite, to present a neutral title that will not conform within the hierarchy. “Our Bodies, Ourselves” as just a title could be feminine or masculine. There’s nothing gendered about “our”.

    I’m right there with you. While reading the early chapters of the text, I got a strong sense that OBO created liberation and acknowledgment for women. By the time I got to the material on newer versions of the text adopted medical terminology to explain processes and procedures to women, I felt a sense of loss over the original goals of the book. When OBO was first released, it was designed to bring awareness to women that had not yet existed. Your observations about the gender-neutral nature of the word “our” are spot-on. By claiming the phrase “our bodies” specifically for women, the title takes an otherwise innocuous word and makes it a source of power. To claim the word “our” allows women to clearly, deliberately, and effectively exclude men from an otherwise inclusive term.

    I just get the sense that, by adopting the language of male-dominated medicine, OBO shifted its approach, potentially eliminated a segment of his readership, and gave up claim to the language that it so powerfully claimed before. With the adoption of medical terminology, should the book title be changed to “Our Bodies, Ourselves, Their Language”?

  2. Genevieve– I found both your and Chris’ discussion interesting and thought provoking. And really, this entire reading is thought provoking for me, as someone who admittedly is at least somewhat inclined toward this great evil called ‘patriarchal authority’ — recognizing, of course, that I might see things in a different light given my particular embodiment and life experiences. But, I do enjoy the debates that arise from these gender and sexuality issues. They are important and the development of new ways of understanding is always important.

    A couple of thoughts popped into my mind as I was reading both posts. First, Genevieve, if you really want a quote to begin your presentation that will invoke your audience, this will work — “A pretty girl like you shouldn’t be concerned with that” (pg. 189). It does seem very easy to take a stand against this perception of male domination, yet when I read the whole quote you were considering beginning with, I can’t help think, yes, it is the aim of patriarchal-based religious traditions to alienate the body (the flesh) from the mind (spirit, soul, etc.), but I’ve really never thought of it as “one of the main aims of male domination.” Rather, it seems to me a perhaps counter intuitive route to empowerment. The less attached to one’s body one is, and the world it is situated in, the more ‘objective’ one is. Which of course means the less subjective, and I think this is what we are all striving for in one way or another. Thus it does seem, to me anyway, that the notion that “I have seen the enemy, and it is me,” as Chris brings up, might well be entertained in the spirit of rhetorical criticism as it relates to OBOS. The aphorisms “Know thyself” and “Know your enemy” don’t really seem that far removed to me — but maybe that’s why religious tradition says, “love your enemy.”

    Going back to Chris’ observation though, based on my reading, I didn’t get that learning the medical terminology was necessarily becoming subject to it, because it seems the motive is to understand it enough to transform it — “The collective encountered the language of medicine, consumed it, and slowly transformed it” (pg. 186). I thought of it like this– we don’t conquer Troy by bashing the walls in– that won’t get us anywhere. We conquer Troy by getting inside it, and conquering it from within. Hope this doesn’t sound like philosophical hogwash, but great posts!

  3. “Rather, it seems to me a perhaps counter intuitive route to empowerment. The less attached to one’s body one is, and the world it is situated in, the more ‘objective’ one is. Which of course means the less subjective, and I think this is what we are all striving for in one way or another.”

    I will speak to me and Gen’s exchange a little more in my own response but wanted to speak to the quote above because it reflects a patriarchal way of thinking. For the record, when I refer to “patriarchy” I am not referring to men, but rather to a system in which we all participate–men and women. To imply that objectivity is what we (should) strive for is not the opposite of patriarchy or domination but is a reflection of it, in my opinion. Even the possibility of “separating one’s self from one’s body” is fraught with privilege since it’s only an option if one occupies a “neutral” or “dominant” body. I don’t think objectivity is something to necessarily strive for or that subjectivity is something we want to move away from. Feminist Standpoint Theory comes to mind here, which argues from particular situated standpoints–knowledge and experience is constructed through/from our particular subjective positions. And this can be empowering. I don’t think objectivity (or erasure of identity) is the route to empowerment. In fact, I don’t think objectivity is even a possibility.

  4. Leandra– all great points. I would only add that this notion, as I understand it, of separating one’s S/self from one’s body as a means of liberation and empowerment has roots in Epictetus’ Stoic philosophy- himself a slave who, through living his philosophy, later won his outward freedom. Definitely a ‘patriarchal’ way of thinking that had considerable influence on Christianity. I agree ‘Absolute’ objectivity is not possible- nobody has a ‘God’s eye view,’ at least not for very long- but I do think of it as a continuum between two poles.

  5. Yes! I do agree with the potential for liberation through separation of self from the body, ESPECIALLY where slavery was concerned because one had to remove one’s self from their physical experience for survival (and by that I mean a kind of transcendence from the body for mental survival). I did my Master’s thesis on Toni Morrison’s Beloved and spend some time on this notion of separating the self from the body through the mind. But I don’t think this is what women strive for. I think for the most part, women do not want to be neutral bodies, but they do not want to be oppressed bodies either.

  6. I am going to include some of my responses to Gen during our email exchange referenced in her response.

    When she indicated that the quote I chose was too gender-based (or Xena the Warrior, as she put it;) to open our presentation, I replied:

    “I did think about that but medicine is about patriarchy and male dominance, which is not to say that ‘men’ are keeping women down or anything personal but to point to the patriarchal nature of medicine and the fact that feminism is heavily responsible for challenging issues within medicine and promoting the advocacy we are talking about. Feminism is not just about liberating women, but liberating everyone from oppressive systems (which medicine is in many ways).”

    When she wrote that she would like to identify as a “patient” and not a “woman patient,” I replied:

    “Okay, you sold me on the half-quote. It works as an opener. You didn’t sell me on the fact that you can separate yourself as a patient from yourself as a female patient, because we cannot disengage from gender–our culture does not allow it. But that is a whole other conversation;) Claiming a neutral position (patient rather than woman or woman patient) does not make you so in the face of medicine or any other cultural position. It doesn’t have to subjugate you either but to deny or reject it does not abdicate you from potential oppression either. And on your last point, this book is called Our Bodies Ourselves with the FEMALE implied. OBOS was (and still is not) intended for men. On the contrary.”

    She speaks to her points in her initial post here and we agreed on some issues (using the half-quote) but not on others, and of course we have different perspectives as women, as patients, as individuals with different experiences. It was an enlightening exchange for both of us (I think;) and I appreciate the discussion that has followed.

  7. I agree with Kevin’s response to Chris’s position–I think medical language and values were significantly transformed and repurposed. Wells suggests that the sense of “loss” produced through later versions was more about the (cultural) transformation of the text’s reader into a solitary consumer rather than part of a collective movement. I think Leandra and Gen will be teaching us how the Internet has enabled new forms of collective patient advocacy to emerge, however.

  8. Dear Genevieve,

    A quick note on the gender-neutrality of the title: outside of books like mine, people don’t encounter OBOS in a setting that allows the title to be read in a gender neutral way. Look at the collection of OBOS covers (you can find some at The title is always joined to images of women–it’s quite clear who “we” are.


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