whose bodies

In the beginning of one English translation of part of Tissot’s Avis au people sur sa santé, Tissot notes that women, in keeping silent about their physical sufferings, are governed by a false modesty which ultimately undermines their wellbeing.

“Most males, young or old, make little, or rather, no scruple, of unfolding any complaint they may labour under, to a Physician, Surgeon, or Apothecary; while young Females, except abandoned Prostitutes, and many even of those more advanced in Years, through innate Modesty, an almost invincible Bashfulness; and a being reserved in the Extreme to the great Detriment of their health, by the ridiculous concealment of a beginning Distemper, suffer a kind of petty Martyrdom to misunderstood Notions of Virtue, which are consequently the cause of their health and constitution being ruined, and of their manifestly pining away, though all around them can assign no Reason…”

(The Lady’s Physician. A practical treatise on the various disorders incident to the fair sex. London: 1766)

There’s a lot going on here.

For Tissot, it’s simple: if you’ve got a medical concern, you should just take yourself to a medical professional and talk about it. But for the women about whom he writes, it’s a much more complex venture, one governed by intricate and often unspoken social mores and values. To speak openly about one’s body as a woman is to mark oneself as a prostitute; that is, to fundamentally break with the hard and fast rules of propriety that governed social relations at the time. While Tissot suggests that this behaviour stems from “misunderstood Notions of Virtue,” the ramifications of speaking out could be dire, particularly for young women seeking to establish a secure social and economic standing for themselves. Such women also had the good names of their families to consider: fallen women could take a whole family edifice down with them as they tumbled from the good graces of elite society.

Some bodies, it seems, cannot be told.

But other bodies are so open that their stories are told for them. Such, indeed, is the case with the prostitutes of Tissot’s commentary: their bodies are public, open, visible, available for consumption. These women are not governed by rigid norms of social propriety. Stories of bodily dis/ease, for them, should be more clearcut.

But is this actually the case? Even as the young woman of propriety finds it near impossible to share her stories, the stories of the prostitute’s body are overdetermined, already shaped by her public visibility.

Dionne Brand makes similar points about the bodies of Black women. These bodies, she argues, carry meanings, but those meanings are almost impossible to discern because writers so frequently silence their stories. As a result, Black women’s sexuality remains relatively uncharted terrain, the victim of what Brand refers to as self preservation, a way of claiming for oneself the body – and body practices – that have been (and, indeed, continue to be) so violently commodified through histories of colonialism. Silence, in this instance, must be understood as “anti-colonial strategy” (93). This silence is, however, deafening:

“But what a trap. Often when we talk about the wonderful Black women in our lives, their valour, their emotional strength, their psychic endurance overwhelm our texts so much so that we forget that apart from learning the elegant art of survival from them, we also learn in their gestures the fine art of sensuality, the fleshy  art of pleasure and desire. ….

Didn’t we take in their sweetness, their skinniness, their voluptuousness, their ample arms, their bone-sharp adroitness, their incandescent darkness; the texture of their skin, its plumbiness, its pliancy; their angularity, their style when dancing, their stride across a piece of yard that sets the yard off; their shake as they sense the earth under their feet, their rock, the way they take music on their shoulders, the way they pause and then shimmy and let it roll? Didn’t we take in their meaning?”

“This Body for Itself,” in Bread out of Stone. Toronto: Vintage Canada 1994, 93.

How do we tell bodies that cannot be told? How can we claim corporeal identities from marginalized spaces, spaces in which ‘the body’ is all that exists, where subjectivity is impossible because the body and all of the meanings imposed upon it loom so large that they threaten to overwhelm any shred of self?

whose bodies can be told? and what stories are they allowed to tell?


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