Radical Reads & Reviews: Oppression and the Body: Roots, Resistance, and Resolutions

As a body image activist who is always eager to find new erudite yet enjoyable books to read, I was not disappointed by Christine Caldwell and Lucia Bennett Leighton’s recent anthology. Published in 2018, Oppression and the Body: Roots, Resistance, and Resolutions explores the intersections of oppression that influence the body and argues that the body is the primary site of oppression in Western society. It presents a collection of essays covering various body-related and intersectional issues such as body identity, code-switching, ecopsychology, racial injustice, dysphoria, and queer resistance.

One fascinating notion that runs through the book is the assertion that body activists should challenge the Western assumption that the mind should be valued over the body. Jeanine M. Canty’s essay notes that Rene Descartes, who famously wrote “I consider the human body as machine,” popularized this idea in the 1600s. Westerners have since then prided themselves in dissociating their bodies from their minds.

Cover of book with title over two figures that are blurred.

Canty makes the compelling argument that since Western logic conflates the body with dirty or sinful “earthly desires” and the mind with more virtuous otherworldly traits, the body and nature have both been historically devalued as inferior to the mind. She holds that this has led Westerners to distance themselves from nature, and she refers to this separation as the “original trauma.” She states, “included in the effects of the original trauma is dissociation in which one blocks ‘mind from body, intellect from feeling, human from natural world,’ and disembodiment in which a person actually exits the body ‘to escape the pain that is literally too overwhelming to bear.’”
Another central concept explored in many of the book’s essays is the reality that the bodies of people with marginalized identities, such as racial minorities, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities, are particularly devalued in our society. Several essays convincingly argue that these individuals internalize the continual trauma that they face in their everyday lives and that the political dimension of this trauma must be addressed through physical and mental therapy. The integration of activism and political awareness into therapeutic spaces is extremely necessary to liberate marginalized communities from trauma. This is especially true because current mental health institutions are too often infiltrated by the white dominant/supremacist patriarchal view that patients’ internal traumas are unrelated to external forces such as racism and sexism.

Although the diverse contributing writers encompassed a broad range of perspectives, I believe some points of view were omitted from the anthology. For one, none of the essays explored how poverty and labor systems severely oppress bodies under our current capitalist system. Many communities are so marginalized they either toil in exhausting jobs for well over 40 hours each week or face the likelihood of becoming homeless.

This normalized degree of overwork is both emotionally traumatizing and physically debilitating to bodies and minds–and sometimes even lethal: those who are overworked are significantly more likely to die from a stroke or heart attack, or even suicide as a result of toxic stress. They’re also more likely to experience depression and/or anxiety. These vulnerable bodies are systematically controlled in a way that is fundamental to capitalism. These bodies are objectified as a means to an end (profit). Advocacy against the objectification of bodies (and particularly those of people of color) should be central to any effort to promote body justice.

Although the book neglected to address this component of body oppression, most of the essays contained highly personal accounts of racism, sexism, gender discrimination, and profiling that were extremely well-written and insightful. While the book’s attempt to focus on personal anecdotes rather than impersonal data made the essays poignant and relatable, some of the narratives were repetitive and could have benefited from integrating a broader lens to address the issue on both an individual and systemic level.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.