Social-justice activists don’t just think that oppression damages the soul. More and more, they zero in, at least rhetorically, on disadvantaged people’s bodies — on “female bodies” and “black bodies,” instead of women and African-Americans.
An article in The Nation describes racism in medicine as “a modern problem built on the legacy of slavery, reproductive oppression, and control of medicine and black bodies.” A recent Teen Vogue article discusses society’s “feeling of ownership over female bodies in general.”
This usage of “bodies” is now mainstream enough to turn up in the Hartford Courant, where a recent opinion piece described the NFL as “a sports league that is as good at silencing black bodies as it is at exploiting them.” The Washington Post’s review of “Black Panther” argues that “American cinema was born on the backs of black bodies.”
As a political statement, the word “body” does a complex job. Half a century ago, the Berkeley activist Mario Savio famously described the university as a corrupt machine and urged student protesters to “put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels.” The abortion-rights movement has emphasized women’s autonomy over their own bodies.
More recently, the emerging usage of “bodies” is closely associated with Black Lives Matter, whose website describes “a world that harms and dehumanizes Black bodies.” Since the movement began with protests against police shootings of African-Americans, the bodies in question weren’t merely figurative.
Referring to people as bodies is a reminder, writer Elizabeth Barnes says in an interview, that “racism isn’t just about the ideas that you have in your head.” Barnes is the author of “The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability, The Girl Behind the Wall.” In intellectual discussions, theories about social oppression sound almost disembodied; “we talk about prejudice,” Barnes says, “like it’s just a matter of ideas.” The point is to emphasize the physical violence done to black people through slavery, lynching, and police brutality. In the case of women, the term “bodies” highlights “what happens to women’s bodies in health care contexts, in sexual contexts, in reproductive contexts.”
Other scholars stress that women, African-Americans, and others have suffered because their bodies are different from those of white men. “In early science, ‘black bodies’ and ‘female bodies’ were specifically discussed in how they deviated from the normative ‘male body,’” former Wheelock College professor Akeia A.F. Benard, now the curator of social history at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, said via e-mail. “‘Disabled bodies’ are envisioned and discussed as if they are deficient instead of in a way that highlights marginalization and lack of accommodations.”
In the blogosphere and on social media, the increasingly conspicuous use of “black bodies” and “female bodies” has brought out critics, some of whom bemoan the ivory-tower origins of the terms. “I’ve been noticing a very annoying new usage, wandering in from the academic world, of referring to people as bodies,” one LiveJournal user writes. On the Philosophy Meta Forum, a writer complains, “Referring to people as ‘bodies’ is in-group signaling from critical theorists and the other humanities rubbish that comes from them.” One Twitter user complains, “Please stop using the term ‘black bodies’ when you mean ‘black people.’ It isn’t the same thing.” Declares another: “People think they’re being so deep when they say ‘black bodies’ when they are objectifying us more!”
For now, though, “bodies” seems to have staying power as a metaphor. After all, everyone has a body, even if not everybody understands what other bodies are going through.
Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.