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The term body politics refers to the practices and policies through which powers of society regulate the human body, as well as the struggle over the degree of individual and social control of the body. The powers at play in body politics include institutional power expressed in government and laws, disciplinary power exacted in economic production, discretionary power exercised in consumption, and personal power negotiated in intimate relations. Individuals and movements engage in body politics when they seek to alleviate the oppressive effects of institutional and interpersonal power on those whose bodies are marked as inferior or who are denied rights to control their own bodies.


Body politics was first used in this sense in the 1970s, during the “second wave” of the feminist movement in the United States. It arose out of feminist politics and the abortion debates. Body politics originally involved the fight against objectification of the female body, and violence against women and girls, and the campaign for reproductive rights for women. “The personal is the political” became a slogan that captured the sense that domestic contests for equal rights in the home and within sexual relationships are crucial to the struggle for equal rights in the public. This form of body politics emphasized a woman’s power and authority over her own body. Many feminists rejected practices that draw attention to differences between male and female bodies, refusing to shave their legs and underarms and rejecting cosmetics and revealing, form-fitting clothing. The book Our Bodies, Our Selves , published in 1973, aimed to widen and deepen women’s knowledge of the workings of the female body, thus allowing women to be more active in pursuit of their sexual pleasure and reproductive health.

Second-wave feminist body politics promoted breaking the silence about rape, sexual abuse, and violence against women and girls, which many interpreted as extreme examples of socially sanctioned male power. The feminists who followed at the end of the twentieth century accepted this stance on rape and violence against women and girls, but they found the gender ideals of second-wave feminists too confining. Members of this generation, sometimes called third-wave feminists or post-feminists, endorse a range of body modification and gender practices that include butchfem gender roles, gender-blending, transgender lifestyles, transsexual surgeries, body piercing, and tattoos.

Women’s bodies were the political battleground of the abortion debates. A protracted struggle to establish a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy was won when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right to abortion in the case of Roe v. Wade in 1974. Almost immediately after that decision, anti-abortion (also called pro-life) activists began protesting against this extension of women’s reproductive rights. Anti-abortion advocates likened aborting a fetus to murder, while pro-abortion advocates (also called pro-choice) pointed to the legion of women who had died in illegal abortions, and to the many more who would doubtlessly follow them if abortion were to become illegal again. In that adversaries square off over the issue of individual versus social control of a woman’s pregnancy, the abortion debates are prime examples of body politics.

Debates about laws and women’s bodies sparked the interests other groups of women who felt that government or institutional power had unfairly exercised control over their bodies or that society should take greater responsibility for the care and protection of women and children. Noting that the abortion debates were about whether or not to have a child, activists pointed to policies and practices that denied reproduction to women in minority communities, especially the forced sterilization of Native Americans. Activists from both sides of the abortion debates joined in to press for employment rights for pregnant women and for maternity and paternity leave for new parents. Arguing that the laws and ethics governing commercial sex transactions were outdated, organizations of prostitutes argued for decriminalization of their work.


The attribution of ethical, moral, temperamental, and social characteristics to individuals or populations based on skin color, facial features, body types, and sexual anatomy figure prominently in racial body politics. This practice is most pronounced in the United States in racism against African Americans. As African people were turned into commodities in the Atlantic slave trade, western countries used bodily differences to justify African subjugation. According to racist logic, dark skin was at the negative pole in the dichotomy of white and good versus black and evil, broad facial features denote licentiousness and lack of intelligence, and the brawny bodies of black men and women cry out for hard labor. The fabled sexual organs of black men and women were credited to be the seat of excessive sexuality, a belief used to blame the bodies of black women and men for their being victims of rape, lynching, and castration. Other populations have also been subject to negative characterizations. For example, the bodies of Mexicans are supposedly built low for farm labor, while the “delicate, nimble” fingers of Asian women supposedly suit them for fine work such as computer-chip manufacture.

Because body politics covers the power to control bodies on the one hand, and resistance and protest against such powers on the other hand, body politics can both uphold and challenge racism. In the United States, the civil rights movement unseated the predominant racial body politics in abolishing Jim Crow laws and abating racial segregation. The slogan “Black is Beautiful” heralded a moment in the 1960s when African Americans pointedly attributed positive values to black physical features. Body politics during that time included wearing hair in a natural, unprocessed “Afro” and donning African-inspired clothing. Remnants of this politics remain in those who attribute positive social and psychological qualities to melanin, the pigment that causes dark skin.

Boehm, Theobald [next]

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