This morning I was eating freshly baked pumpkin-spice-oatmeal muffins at a cafe–I had brought them in a tupperware container as a gift–with my adorable but injured graduate student. Her surgeon, she explained, had recently diagnosed her as ‘healthy but abnormal.’ We giggled and sipped on the cappucinos that the sexy-but-too-thin-for-my-liking barista had brought over. Oh that’s great, I said. Can I use it for my blog? Of course, she enthused, before describing the simultaneously painful and pleasurable itch-relief she had felt when her surgical staples were removed. She knows where I live. Is it wrong that I am compelled by everything corporeal and abject? Probably not. Is it troubling that I had an adventurously erotic dream about Mantracker last night? Most definitely. Oh Mantracker, the passions that lie behind your steely blue eyes…
I liked the idea of being ‘healthy but abnormal’ because I had been thinking about historically shifting definitions of wellness all week while writing a chapter of my new book on seventeenth-century convalescence. (Now you know why I was not blogging; I also did three studio visits, wrote the panel text for an art exhibition, revised an article for publication, read a book about hairy monsters, and prepared a gigantic Ethiopian meal. So stop calling me lazy in those snarky e-mail messages). Thus far I have reached the following conclusions: there was no normative understanding of health during the early modern period. In fact, health did not exist, at least not in the modern sense. The well functioning early modern body was not static; it was in constant motion, interacting with the world. A properly functioning body was energetic, moving, upright, taking in food, air, water, while expelling mucous, sweat, feces, urine, pus, menstrual blood, and the occasional tape worm. Oh yeah; these are the things I study when I am not doing 185 pound dead lifts.
All early modern bodies were a little different, composed of diverse combinations of four humours–black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. The amount and nature of each humour within a body produced its temperament. A high level of phlegm, for instance, would make a person sluggish. This character type would do well to seek out hot, drying climates and avoid such dense wet food as melons, which could only exacerbate his, or more likely her, lethargic condition. Women were considered more prone to this wet and cold disposition. Illness resulted when a person’s particular humoural balance was undermined; to use the same example, increased phlegm might render one exhausted, encouraging the body to expel that excess humour through the mouth and nose. Today we might call these ‘flu-like symptoms.’ Health was therefore specific to each individual, a state of balance that the body was continually striving to maintain or recover. Early modern medical treatments assisted this process without interfering too much, usually by trying to dislodge an unruly humour through sweating or phlebotomy (bleedings). Because this humoural conception of bodily functions was both logical and based on empirical observation, it remained commonsense in the western world for hundreds of years.
Why am I giving you this scintillating history lesson? Well, first of all because I am a pompous ass. But also because I think it sheds light on our own, more narrow and rigid understandings of the body. These understandings are normative in the Foucauldian sense. While not required to conform to norms, we unavoidably measure ourselves against them. Consider the posters on campus that try to normalize drinking among university students; apparently, surveys indicate that first-year students consume an average of 2.5 alcoholic beverages per week. Some students might read this stastistic and feel proud of their non-geeky binge drinking, while others might judgementally embrace their tea-totalling ways. In both cases, the norm has produced a certain sense of identity. Almost everything about the human body is normalized in the western world: weight, height, BMI, pregnancy, the expected number of sick days etc. I suspect that the insurance industry is partly responsible. But it has not always been that way…
Sure some bodies were considered superior to others during the early modern period. Surprise, surprise, they were male, of European descent, and procreative. But there were no averages or standards against which all bodies were measured. Instead, there were bodily productions and activities that were natural, against nature (a little less natural), and unnatural full stop. In childbirth, a fetus presenting head first and face down was natural, face up was against nature, and one arm first was unnatural. A child with two heads or covered entirely in fur would also be unnatural. It would be a monster–fascinating, frightening, heroic, and worth looking at, like the Gonzalez sisters who grew up in sixteenth-century Italy, and were entirely covered in hair.
I think you can guess where I am going with this monster discussion. Female heavyweight bodybuilders deliberately defy the norms of femininity and are often considered to be grotesque and wonderful spectacles. I was amazed by how such women were treated by the public in Las Vegas during the 2010 Olympia weekend. Even when simply walking down the street, these muscular ladies would be photographed, commented on, and approached, usually by people asking for work out and diet tips. Many spectators were filled with desire for the bronzed Amazons in their midst, and some got a little carried away, stooping down the take pictures of bulging calf muscles, requesting that these ladies stomp on their balls or shove their unwashed toes into willing mouths. Let me pause here, my friends, to assure you that I am not inventing these examples. All comments are based on my first-hand, anthropological observations in Las Vegas.
This is a good place to stop and give you a chance to google ‘stinky giant feet in mouth,’ or ‘calf fetish.’ You will get some hits. And you might also get sent back to this site. God knows that someone searching ‘kicked in testicles’ was directed to Feminist Figure Girl’s blog just last week. I hope they weren’t too disappointed.