Embodiment refers to the ways in which individuals arrange, display, and experience their bodies to demonstrate different identities in a given context. Embodiment shows the complex social, cultural, and political processes that interact and then are experienced by an individual. Embodiment makes ideologies and ideas concrete through its unconscious and conscious inscription onto an individual body.
Individuals inhabit and treat their body differently, which creates many variances in the ways that bodies look and are experienced, even within just one culture. Anthropologist Carol Delaney explains, “the body is a rich source of symbols, we cannot assume that their meaning is naturally determined or universal" (220).
For example, a woman may embody femininity in many different ways, and using a number of strategies such as: emphasizing or muting various features, making use of bodily adornments, wearing certain colors and clothing, and through techniques and rituals of the body (i.e. serving tea to guests, horseback riding, mothering, being a teacher, wearing a bra, swinging your hips, etc.) (Delaney 207).
Embodiment creates many different possibilities and interactions in society, as well as being a means of agency for individuals. In places like Afghanistan, modesty is embodied through wearing the veil, which bars women from the public sphere, yet in Egypt the veil allows women to work comfortably outside the home and alongside men. The veil can be used to either hinder, or be used as a means of participation in society (Gottlieb 174).
Gender and Embodiment
Men and women hold their bodies differently from one another—and even within each gender category, there are myriad possibilities of enacting different characteristics of femininity and masculinity. Male and female bodies are trained to perform activities differently in following a certain gender script, or gender narrative. For example, this can be anything from how an man sits in a chair compared to a woman, or how he holds a cup, walks, and other characteristics such as nonverbal cues (appearance and artifact), the use of space, the use of touch, eye contact and facial expressions, and verbal communication (Domenico, Foss and Foss 164). See here, here, and here for depictions of gendered embodiments.
Judith Butler explains how the enactment of gender is not essential, but rather is a performative process and socially constructed, meaning gender performance is dynamic and open to interpretation and complication for every individual: “If there is something right in Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, it follows that woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end. As an ongoing discursive practice, it is open to intervention and resignification” (45). Here she encourages “gender trouble” or complicating gender categories through an individual’s ability of embodiment or performance.
Context and Embodiment
Reducing different embodiments to a single factor (i.e. gender) ignores the many other influences that contribute to how we embody certain characteristics and cultural ideologies. Context is important when considering the diversity of possibilities of embodiments for individuals. Setting, audience, and the performer are all factors of performativity that influence an individual’s embodiment of different identities, and also ensure the fluidity and dynamic nature of embodiment (Domenico, Foss and Foss 169).
Additional specific factors that effect embodiment and allow for a diversity of experiences between individuals include class, education, race, ethnicity, age, location, profession, religion, language, politics, and economics. All these factors complicate and allow for myriad possibilities of masculinities and femininities to be performed and experienced.
For instance, some groups in Africa view plump bodies as beautiful and a demonstration of their husband’s wealth and ability to keep them well fed, whereas in the West, thin and elegant women are admired and have a kind of prestige compared to other body types (Delaney 210). In this case, these two women embody wealth differently.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Delaney, Carol. Investigating Culture: An Experiential Introduction to Anthropology. Wiley Blackwell, 2011. Print.
Domenico, Mary E., Foss, Karen A.. and Sonja K. Foss. Gender Stories: Negotiating Identity in A Binary World. Long Grove: Waveland Press Inc., 2013. Print.
Gottlieb, Alma. “Interpreting Gender and Sexuality: Approaches from Cultural Anthropology.” Exotic No more: Anthropology on the Front Lines. Ed. Jeremy MacClancy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 167-189. Print.
Nealon, Jeffrey, and Susan Searls Giroux. The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences. 2nd ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2011. Print.