Health and Bodies
Simone A. James Alexander
Africana & Diaspora Studies, Seton Hall University
"'Crimes Against the Flesh': Politics and Poetics of the (Black) Female Body"
To heal the “crimes against the flesh,” that is, to counter the misrepresentations, omissions, and silencing of the black female body that have plagued black women’s self- or body imagery for centuries, black women writers including Toni Morrison, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, Grace Nichols, Edwidge Danticat, and Maryse Condé have set out to reconstruct and recreate the black female body both physically and spiritually. Audre Lorde initiates this reconstruction by enacting a political and poetic intervention chronicling her fourteen-year battle with breast cancer. This chapter examines how the discourse of the (black) female body is raced, gendered and classed. I look at the intersectional approach—as well as its absence—in the treatment of women’s bodies, and how such absence renders them disabled. Taking a cue from Lorde, I will analyze the “apartheid-like” relation and dismissal of black bodies, and discuss the politicization of women’s bodies. Embedded in this theory of politicization is a didactic relationship between the domestic industry in the promotion/distortion of female body/imagery and women who themselves engage in committing crimes against the flesh.
Women and Gender Studies
"A Body Worth Defending: 'Immunity' and the Bio-Politics of Bio-Medicine"
A monograph length study that examines the changing imagination of illness and healing in Western medicine between the study that examines the changing imagination of illness and healing in western medicine between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Analyzing a range of medical, legal, political, philosophical, and historical documents, this project explores the process through which the two thousand year old legal metaphor “immunity” becomes an organizing principle for bio-scientific understanding at the end of the nineteenth century. By recovering the unarticulated assumptions that the metaphor carries with it into scientific medicine, the book illuminates the social and ethical implications embedded in immunity’s transformation from a political to a biological concept.
"Healing as Metaphor"
A collection of essays weaving together personal accounts of my 30 year experience with Crohn’s disease (a severe and often life threatening autoimmune illness) with critical reflections on the place of the imagination in the process of healing. In contrast to Susan Sontag’s famous polemic Illness as Metaphor, this book appreciates “healing” both as a metaphor that has been largely ignored within the contemporary western bio-medical perspective (where it has been replaced by “immunity”) and as an embodied practice of poesis that manifests the imagination as a material effect. By revaluing metaphor as a resource for assuaging illness, this project seeks to reanimate the mysterious dimensions of healing that have been unwittingly obscured by the acceptance of bio-scientific metaphors as empirical truths.
Institute for Research on Women; Women’s and Gender Studies
"(Lesbian) Blood Sisters: Local Responses to HIV/AIDS in the Early 1980's"
Local lesbian and gay activists across the country responded in the earliest years of the AIDS epidemic by organizing blood drives. The second annual Chicago gay and lesbian blood drive was announced in June 1982 but by early 1983, the local Red Cross chapter had reservations about accepting blood from self-identified gay men. The drive was cancelled pending identification of a screening process or confirmation that the infection was not blood borne. After 1983, when the US Food and Drug Administration prohibited blood donation by any man who had had sex with another man, even once, since 1977, groups of lesbians and women concerned with the well-being of the gay community began to organize blood drives. These groups were short-lived and were sometimes met with homophobic reactions, as when a drive in Orange County (California) was cancelled in 1984 by the local Red Cross, which cited fears that the general public would consider the blood tainted. This project, an outgrowth of my teaching in Women’s and Gender Studies, aims to document the activities of and participants in “Blood Sisters” groups operating in at least two cities on the West Coast in the early eighties.
Political Science; Director of Women’s Studies, Rutgers-Newark
"Controlling Sex: State Regulation of Sexuality"
This project addresses a number of issues in contemporary feminist, critical race, and queer political thought related to families, identity, and intimate association. The project examines state policies that seek to control or discipline sexuality based on the identity of the regulated, particularly through abstinence only sex education, welfare reform policies aimed at controlling the sexual and marital behavior of low-income women and men, and policies that discipline ‘homosexuality” such as sodomy laws and the Defense of Marriage Act. While scholars have examined sexual regulation in a variety of contexts, this project develops further a set of connections between forms of sexual regulation suggested by the work of such scholars as Cathy Cohen, Anna Marie Smith, and Janet Jakobsen. The effort is to connect the analysis of sexual regulation of low income women with the regulation of the sexuality of youth and of sexual minority men and women that is connected in several specific public policies. The project asks: how are the bodies of those subject to state sexual regulation constructed via public policy? How does this sexual regulation affect the health and well-being of those subject to these policies? The policies in question justify and legitimize state scrutiny of the intimate sexual and reproductive lives of those who are subject to the policies, in the name of morality, instruction, or even of state fiscal savings. These policies represent state efforts to control and regulate the bodies and subjectivity of subaltern groups.
"Writing Bodies: Convention and Innovation in Women's Illness Narratives"
When illness disrupts a life, narrative can give the experience meaning. Written “illness narratives,” whether amateur or professional, can be highly conventional tales of crisis and redemption or strikingly original accounts that rework cultural concepts such as illness, disability, the body, and gender. This project places a range of illness narratives in the context of a medical practice called “narrative medicine’” which is influenced by feminist bioethics. In narrative medicine doctors are trained to interpret and compose narratives in order to become more responsive to patients’ needs. The proponents of this practice, however, have not fully answered the question of how to take into account the constraints of convention or the disruption of innovation. Using narratives by women and others outside biomedical culture, I consider the threat posed to the ethical practices of narrative medicine by convention and the challenges produced by imaginative constructions of gender and the body.
"Understanding Difference After Inclusion: Biomedical Investigations of Sex, Gender, and Health Following the "'Inclusion Mandate'"
Beginning in the 1970s, women’s health activists cast the lack of women’s participation in clinical research as an important health policy and social justice issue. Following a wave of critique and public pressure, Congress passed the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act of 1993, which encompassed the “inclusion mandate.” This required all clinical investigations supported by the federal government to include women as test subjects. I propose to investigate the impact of this policy and to examine how biomedical scientists are investigating sex, gender, and health. I will consider the ways in which conceptions of women’s bodies and health have been categorically reformulated or recast. I will conduct close textual reading and content analysis of research grants and their related publications. Given the continuing medicalization of previously ‘normal” conditions and growing acceptance of biomedical solutions, it is necessary for social scientists to carefully evaluate how biomedical scientists are investigating gender and health and what conclusions they are making about difference.
Patrice M. Mareschal
Public Policy and Administration-Camden
"Invisible No More: Politics, Policy, and the Mobilization of Caring Labor of Caring Labor"
Caring labor is a term applied to the work involved in attending to “the physical, psychological, emotional, and developmental needs of one or more other people.” Drawing on interviews with caring laborers, union leaders and organizers, and community activists, this stream of research chronicles the steps that were taken in California, Oregon, and Washington that enabled the Service Employees International Union to organize tens of thousands of caring laborers. These jobs used to pay the minimum wage with no benefits, but unionized home care aides in the Western states now earn more than ever before and enjoy benefits such as workers’ compensation and health insurance. During the process home care workers, a predominantly female, geographically dispersed, and economically under-valued workforce, were brought together to experience the power of direct political action, shape public policy, and extend their research beyond the union to other civic and social groups.
"Genetic Counselors Work Practices"
For U.S. women, genetic screening is becoming a standard part of prenatal care. Effective communication of complex technical information is an essential aspect of providing access to prenatal genetic services. A growing body of research has begun to examine pregnant women’s responses to and desires for prenatal screening. However, there is little research on how the work of genetic counselors affect pregnant women’s decisions of whether or not to undergo prenatal genetic testing, how and whether women of diverse ethnic and class backgrounds are counseled, how health insurance coverage and reimbursement affects access to and decision-making about genetic services, and whether the work of genetic counselors vary at different institutional settings. Knowing more about the ways in which genetic counselors present prenatal genetic information to various clients and the contextual factors that affect the availability, accessibility and quality of genetic counseling should improve the delivery of genetic and health services across populations of women, as well as provide insight into how the routinization of prenatal counseling services affects differently situated women’s embodied experience of pregnancy and notions of maternal health practices. My proposed research would examine the role of genetic counselors in decision-making across populations through ethnographic observations of counseling sessions at diverse clinical setting. The specific aims of this study are to: identify the institutional factors that influence the information disseminated by genetic counselors; Examine how genetic counselors translate scientific discourse into lay terms and how this affects whether women of diverse populations undergo prenatal testing; Explore variation across race/ethnicity and social class in the content of genetic counseling sessions and in the subsequent decision-making process.
Women and Gender Studies
"Race, Sexuality, and Gender in Contemporary Cosmetic Surgery"
I argue that the contemporary cosmetic surgery industry (primarily in the U.S.) is reorganizing contemporary notions of “the body” and of “health.” I analyze how cosmetic surgery disciplines individual bodies and forms processed by which populations are regulated. Cosmetic surgery articulates itself through discourses of race, gender, and sexuality, at the same time that it reconfigures these axes. I understand these categories through a framework of what Foucault calls “the intensification of the body,” and argue that cosmetic surgery is a process by which sexualized and racialized bodies are intensified, reformed, and reorganized. I call for a historicization of “health,” and argue that cosmetic surgery is profoundly altering what “health” means. I claim that “health” often serves as a normative and regulative framework, and that the “drive” for health is not separate from power. As is especially clear in cosmetic surgical discourse, “health” also functions through both ideas about gender, sexuality, and race, and serves to materially alter those categories, both at the level of individual bodies and at the level of populations.
"Protection and Precariousness: Workplace 'Mobbing' and Flexible Bodies in Neoliberal Northern Italy"
Situated in northern Italy, this anthropological investigation traces the social life of “mobbing’” a particular kind of workplace harassment defined as mistreatment of workers to the point of resignation. I not only analyze its historical emergence as a downsizing strategy, but also how, through mobbing, neoliberal capitalism came to be understood as physically endangering and mobbing a medical “pathology” entailing state, legislative and public health interventions. Staying close to cultural understandings of bodies and embodied experience, I examine how health standards in Italy have shifted to include an ever-diminishing group of workers able to rapidly embody the demands of the flexible and highly precarious workplace, and exclude, even pathologize, workers—mostly women—purported not to embody these new health ideals. Examining the contingent process of capitalism, gendered subjectivity and meaning-making, I reveal how the term mobbing has come to name the abuses, human costs and corporeal effects of neoliberal economics.
Rutgers School of Law-Camden
"The More Things Change: Legal Regulation of Motherhood in a Rapidly Changing Technological Landscape"
I propose to pursue a project in which I contend with issues of mothering and reproductive technology that focuses on several questions including: What are appropriate limitations on how women’s bodies can be used as sites for expanding the possibilities of reproduction? In what ways and on what basis may the state treat pregnant bodies differently from those that do not or cannot carry pregnancies? How does the changing technological landscape, meaning our ability to control reproduction at very advanced levels, alter the way that women experience motherhood or the process of becoming a mother? Grounding my work in my interest in the legal regulation of motherhood, I will go beyond identifying deficiencies in the law and articulate practical ways that the law can be used to dismantle dominant paradigms that exclude many people from the world of parenting based on race, class, or sexual orientation.
NIMH Postdoctoral Fellow
Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research
"Domestic Violence Against Women, Immigration Experiences and Mental Health"
This project focuses on low-income Hispanic immigrant women’s experiences of domestic violence and their mental and physical health, first in New Brunswick, New Jersey and then potentially in similar communities in New Jersey and New York. It interrogates biomedical categories for defining mental health problems in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. It examines how Hispanic immigrant women’s situations affect their experiences and conceptualizations of domestic violence, their mental and physical health problems, help-seeking and recovery. It seeks to understand different ways of experiencing and expressing emotion, how these can be effectively translated cross-culturally and the utility of standard psychiatric categories for doing so. Qualitative research methods include in-depth life history interviews with women survivors of domestic violence, contacted through research collaboration with various institutions and organizations. Focus group and semi-structured interviews will also be conducted with women survivors, professionals working on domestic violence and local community leaders.
Beijing Foreign Studies University
"Female Body as Discourse in Lessing’s Children of Violence: Silencing and Resistance"
Is the female body a passive surface onto which phallocentric texts are written? The answer is both "yes" and "no." This project aims to decode the myth of the female body through critical interpretation of a literary text children of Violence series by renowned British modern novelist Doris Lessing. In depicting her heroine Martha’s body from adolescence into postmenopausal old age in Children of Violence series, Lessing perceives a deep schism between mind and body, in which female body is both seen as a shell that severely limit’s woman’s experience and a liberating force which speaks her identity; in other words, female body is silenced by but yet restrained to the phallocentric tradition.
"'Before and After': Picturing the Rest Cure"
In this new project, I will examine the broad implications-historical, medical, social, and aesthetic-of six pairs of black an white post-card-sized photographs made around 1880, labled simply 1a through 6b, which purport to show the effects of dr. Silas Weir Mitchell’s infamous “rest cure.” A “before and after” formulation dramatizes the distance traveled from illness to health: skeletal women draped in shroud-like confections or muffled in layers of toweling are transformed into smiling young matrons with flowers in their hair and lace around their collars. These images are hybrids. They are related to contemporary photography of mentally ill women, but they also depend upon Victorian portraiture conventions-both photographic and painterly-for the feminine. They testify to an irresolution about how to identify and represent illness and health in the 19th century upper middle class woman.
"Embodying Sex: Race, Homosexuality, & the Sciences of Difference"
My dissertation provides a gendered analysis of American scientific racism. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Americans looked to medical and scientific understandings of race and sex to naturalize the social order. Evolutionary theory provided an ideological framework in which bodies were compared and ranked along a gendered scale of perfection that mirrored social hierarchies. Locating human character and destiny on the physical body, scientists also began to examine the bodies of homosexuals for proof of their innate difference, employing a model of degeneracy and disease similar to ethnological conceptualizations of race. Such research gave rise to notions of intermediacy, which have long been overlooked by historians who have typically viewed nineteenth-century ideas of gender in terms of strict binaries. Presented in stark contrast to Victorian ideals, turn-of-the-century blacks and homosexuals came to inhabit a middle ground in the male/female binary, represented by scientists and politicians alike as sexual deviants or intermediate types—in both behavior and body.